This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Matthew Noble’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Film #9: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Starring Roger Moore as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007
*This review contains spoilers for the book (barely) and movie versions of The Man with the Golden Gun. You have been warned.*
"I'm now aiming precisely at your groin.
So speak, or forever hold your piece."
I'm somewhat at a disadvantage when it comes to reviewing The Man with the Golden Gun, as the novel with which it shares its title is the only Ian Fleming Bond book I haven't read in full. Right now I'm stuck on chapter 4, but it doesn't seem to share that many similarities with its film adaptation other than character names, a few lines of dialogue, and most of the villain's backstory. From what I've heard, most of the plot beats of the literary version can be found instead in Licence to Kill, so hopefully by the time I get to review that movie, I'll have finished the book.
As for the cinematic incarnation of The Man with the Golden Gun, I'm rather fond of it. Granted, it was cobbled together at short notice by the producers following the success of Live and Let Die, resulting in a short turnaround for everyone involved. For one, John Barry wrote the entire score in just three weeks. He was never satisfied with it, but being John Barry means that it's still above-average. Ditto with a lot of the production.
Obligatory John Barry cues:
We begin with another pre-title sequence that doesn't feature 007, set entirely on the island of the movie's villain, Francisco Scaramanga. Don't worry, I'll discuss him at length later. An incongruous Chicago hitman arrives to kill him (hired by Scaramanga's diminutive manservant, Nick Nack), leading to an excellent duel set in a creepy funhouse. Prefiguring the climax is a risky move on the filmmakers' part, but at least it results in an arresting opening scene. For one thing, that dummy of Bond certainly grabs your attention, even though that's clearly Roger Moore standing really still. Just how famous is secret agent 007, anyway? Famous enough for Scaramanga to know what he looks like, I guess. Maybe SPECTRE had his likeness on file.
After an underrated title sequence (Lulu's song is no "Live and Let Die", but it's a decent little rock number), we are reintroduced to Bond in London, where he learns from M that he's been sent a golden bullet, indicating that Scaramanga is targeting him. As a precaution, Bond is pulled off his assignment to recover the Solex agitator, a weird energy device that will supposedly solve the "global energy crisis." This storyline was written in response to the oil embargo of 1973, which resulted in international fuel shortage. An interesting idea, but one which seems at odds with the rest of the plot. Also, is it just me, or is M becoming increasingly tetchy and irritable? That moment where he tells Q to shut up - twice - seems a little harsh, even if it raises a chuckle.
Bond follows a lead to Beirut, where he believes 002 was killed by Scaramanga. There he encounters a belly dancer named Saida, who has kept one of the killer's golden bullets for herself as a charm. Naturally, he acquires it through... unusual methods, but not before getting into a surprisingly brutal fight with some local hoods. Say what you will about Roger's Bond, but he could still throw a punch when he had too. Bond tracks the bullet back to a gunmaker called Lazar, located in Macau. Their encounter is refreshingly dark, indicating that for once, 007 is taking this threat to his life seriously.
Unlike the novel, which takes place in Jamaica, The Man with the Golden Gun sees Bond travelling all over Asia, from Lebanon to Macau, then Hong Kong and Thailand. As Bond himself would say, I approve. He tracks an order of gold bullets to Scaramanga's kept woman, Andrea Anders, played by the alluring Maud Adams. Their confrontation in her hotel room is intense, yet almost warranted. Bond physically coerces her into talking, allowing Moore a rare moment of menace. When he snarls at Andrea, he is legitimately intimidating. A pity we don't see this side of him more often.
To restore the balance of silliness, we also meet the primary Bond girl, Mary Goodnight. If you'll indulge me, here's some backstory on her.
In Fleming's books, Miss Moneypenny appears as M's secretary, but is a relatively minor character. Instead, Bond flirts with the 00 section's secretary, the delightfully-named Loelia Ponsonby. When Loelia is revealed to have left the service in a later adventure, she is replaced by none other than Mary Goodnight, who shows up in at least three stories. The last of these is The Man with the Golden Gun, where Bond and Goodnight finally consummate their relationship, hence her appearance in the film. Alas, movie Goodnight is comfortably one of the lesser Bond girls. Incompetence is one thing, but her one-sided infatuation with Bond leads to more grimaces than laughs. Thankfully Britt Ekland does what she can to make the character bearable, and she does fill out that bikini nicely.
Bond looks for Scaramanga at the Bottom's Up club, leading to one of the film's best scenes. Lit only by the street light spilling through the shutters, Scaramanga lies in wait, supposedly for Bond. But as the tension reaches a crescendo, he fires and kills someone else. Coincidentally enough, his actual target was Gibson, the inventor of the Solex Agitator. Nick Nack steals the Solex, and Bond is arrested by Lieutenant Hip. The aftermath of that scene baffles me. Why doesn't Hip identify himself immediately in the car? Or on the boat? What's with the mystery? Fear not, this mild irritation with Hip will continue throughout.
Following a meeting with M in the sunken Queen Elizabeth (damn, that location is cool), Bond heads to Thailand hoping to meet the man who hired Scaramanga, Hai Fat. A trippy set piece soon follows, as Bond battles sumo wrestlers in Fat's garden later that night. Did I mention this story takes place in Asia? This then leads to a brawl at a karate school involving Hip and his nieces (um, sure?), which in turn leads to a boat chase after the idiot Hip drives off without Bond. Unfortunately, the boat chase isn't quite as fresh and exciting as the one in Live and Let Die. It is shorter, though, I'll give it that.
And lo and behold, Louisiana's own Sheriff J.W. Pepper returns! It's a little jarring to realise that he shares a film with Francisco Scaramanga, but given that I liked J.W. in Live and Let Die, it should come as no surprise that I don't mind his appearance in this. He makes me laugh, so he gets a pass. Though God knows why he's looking at new cars when he's on holiday, let alone without his wife.
But enough about Pepper, because he doesn't even show up in The Man with the Golden Gun's worst scene. After a pleasant dinner with Goodnight where she rebuffs his advances, Bond returns to his room to find her there in a nightie. "I'm weak," she says. Don't we know it. Before he can shag her, Bond is surprised by Andrea, who comes to explain her role in this whole affair. As it turns out, she was the one who sent the bullet, hoping that Bond would kill Scaramanga. Why couldn't she explain this to him in her hotel room? Who knows. Instead of extracting the necessary information and sequestering Andrea someplace safe, Bond sleeps with her and lets her go back to the villain in the hopes of acquiring the Solex. All while Goodnight is forced to hide in the closet. James, I've been with you so far, but that's just cruel and unusual.
But soon all is forgiven, as Bond finally meets Scaramanga ringside at kickboxing. Now, let's talk about Christopher Lee.
Charismatic and sophisticated, yet simultaneously sinister and intimidating, Scaramanga might be the best villain of the entire series. The franchise frequently toys with the idea of an evil James Bond, with baddies that lead equally lavish lifestyles (Largo, Kananga, Sanchez, Le Chiffre) or share similar occupations (Silva, Trevelyan, Red Grant and the other blond henchmen). Scaramanga combines these two ideals, and wraps them up in one glorious, Christopher Lee-shaped package. Lee brings a masterful degree of subtlety to the part, and all of his scenes are a joy to watch. His mere presence actually elevates the rest of the film. Oh, and Nick Nack is pretty good too. You gotta love Hervé Villechaize.
The kickboxing finishes, and we get more of this Solex business. Thanks to Goodnight's stupidity, both she and the Solex wind up in the trunk/boot of Scaramanga's car. Abandoning Hip (who proves to be clueless once again), Bond steals another car, albeit one that happens to contain a familiar redneck sheriff. J.W.'s presence notwithstanding, it's a good, solid car chase, made a dozen times better by the inclusion of that legendary "astro-spiral" corkscrew jump. Forget the slide-whistle, that stunt is still spectacular, as is the sight of a working flying car. Seriously, that thing actually flew.
Which leads me to the third act, in which Bond pursues Goodnight to the villains' island lair. It's second only to Piz Gloria on my list of Bondian locations to visit, by the by. Unsurprisingly, Scaramanga welcomes Bond with open arms. Their interplay during the tour is staggeringly good, but it's even better at the dinner table. Scaramanga knows he must kill Bond, but respects him as an intellectual and professional equal. Bond, on the other hand, has nothing but contempt for Scaramanga, and refuses to identify with him on any level. His defensive remarks ("I admit killing you would be a pleasure.") suggest the comparisons between them aren't that far off.
Their subsequent duel almost feels like a formality, but it does the job well. Barry's music helps a lot, bringing tension to a reasonably telegraphed climax. We've already visited the funhouse, and naturally, we all know Bond is going to replace that dummy of himself. But it's still fun to actually see him do it. And my God, I love Scaramanga's pained expression when he dies: his failure and regret is etched across Lee's face, the sudden realisation that he's finally met his match. Would that he had lived to die another day.
Sadly, the film doesn't stop there, and we must spend another 5-10 minutes watching Bond and Goodnight liberate the Solex from the complex. It's like two different Bond movies are fighting for your attention, and the better one of them has just ended, leaving the audience to watch the remainder of the lesser one. Afterwards Nick Nack reappears in time to assault the couple before being indignantly forced into a suitcase, and then M somehow calls them on Scaramanga's telephone. I don't even know what to say to that. Or how to describe it.
If there is a word to describe The Man with the Golden Gun, it's schizophrenic. Tonally speaking, the thing is all over the place, managing to encompass martial arts, bedroom antics comedy, the search for a silly MacGuffin, and a psychological exploration of two professional killers. The central conflict between Bond and Scaramanga is electrifying, but it shares the screen with ineffectual side characters and superfluous comedy. That's probably why many express distaste for this outing: because they expected more from the amazing premise of 007 facing his ultimate foe. And yet, somehow, miraculously, it all works for me as is. What can I say? It entertains throughout, never bores, and rarely displeases. Blame the combined charm and machismo of Christopher Lee and Roger Moore. Their's truly is "a duel between titans."
Best Aspect: Francisco Scaramanga. Need I say more?
Worst Aspect: Bond's allies (Goodnight, Hip) are properly useless this time around. When you make J.W. Pepper seem competent, you know you're doing a bad job.
Best Scene: Literally any interaction (mostly verbal, partly physical) between Bond and Scaramanga, which Moore and Lee play to perfection. Runners-up include the pre-title sequence, the assassination of Gibson, and that astro-spiral car stunt, sans the silly slide whistle.
Worst Scene: Goodnight in the closet. Bond at his sex comedy worst.
This movie's MVP: Since he departed the series at this point, producer Harry Saltzman, who gave us the first nine Bond movies. An eccentric Canadian showman who ran away to join the circus as a teenager, Saltzman became a talent scout after serving in the war, and subsequently a producer. Upon reading Goldfinger, he was the one who bought the Bond film rights from Ian Fleming, before joining forces with Cubby Broccoli to make them. Saltzman was also primarily responsible for the casting of both George Lazenby and Roger Moore, so kudos for that. A big figure in the canon who deserves a lot of respect.
I feel like I'm forgetting something. Oh, of course…
GUY HAMILTON'S CAR CARNAGE!!!
Sadly, there's not much of it. One motorised boat gets split in half, one car is run off the road and crashes, and one seaplane is blown up with a laser. Hardly a fitting end for Guy Hamilton's reign of automotive terror.
James Bond will return in The Spy Who Loved Me