Thursday, September 12, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0015 The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)

Too high, right? You think The Man With The Golden Gun should be lower than No. 0015 of 0023? Honestly, that would have been my gut feeling too, until I started to think about the film and how it really compares. And in the end, this is where it belongs. Observe.

Plot Quality: The plot to Golden Gun stands out rather uniquely among the Bond films. The film begins with Bond being pulled off his mission to recover a stolen device that transforms sunlight into highly concentrated energy: the Solex agitator. He’s been removed from the mission because MI-6 has received a golden bullet with Bond’s 007 number on it. This golden bullet means that the mysterious Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), the world’s greatest assassin, intends to kill Bond. M suggests that Bond go into hiding. Bond instead decides to track Scaramanga down. This is perhaps one of the strongest ideas to power a Bond film as, for once, the story isn’t about Bond’s duty, it’s about Bond hunting a man to save his own life. This is Bond versus the anti-Bond, mano-a-mano.
As the story unfolds, Bond traces the golden bullet to Macau, where he sees Scaramanga’s mistress Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) collect the bullet. He tries to follow her, but is blocked by the agent sent to assist him, Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland). Bond eventually makes contact with Andres and discovers that she sent the golden bullet to MI-6 because she wants Bond to kill Scaramanga. In exchange, she will give him the Solex MI-6 has been looking for. Bond agrees, but Scaramanga kills her before she can deliver. This begins a chase scene which eventually leads Bond to Scaramanga’s private island where he and Bond hunt each other in an elaborate funhouse Scaramanga has set up to practice his craft. Bond kills Scaramanga, rescues Goodnight, retrieves the Solex, and sails for home.

Honestly, the above is a top James Bond plot. You have a strong villain with extraordinary skill, unlike many of his predecessors who are merely rich. His motive is unique. This is a dark, visceral story of a contest to the death between the world’s two greatest hunters supported by a lean plot that makes sense throughout. You have a strong Bond girl who drives events, exotic settings and even the travelogue feel. These are things the lower-ranking films simply cannot boast, not with their bland or cartoonish villains, their nonsensical or pointless plots, and the indifference with which so many of them were approached. That’s why this film isn’t rated lower.

So why isn’t this film rated higher?

Well, therein lies the problem. For while the structure of this film is fantastic, the execution isn’t. In fact, the film kept undercutting itself. For example, whereas Live and Let Die was a blaxploitation film, this one borrows heavily from martial arts films, yet Moore feels out of place in that environment. This also led to the regrettable decision to have Bond let two young girls do his fighting for him in one scene... something which feels embarrassing; not to mention, the scene is ridiculous as these two small girls kick in the general direction of supposedly trained martial artists only to have them fall down unconscious from blows that would be unlikely even to slow a grown man.
This awful scene then leads directly to one of the worst moments in a James Bond film, as we are reintroduced to Sheriff J.W. Pepper (played by Bufford T. Justice Jar-Jar Binks Clifton James). Pepper is the fat, obnoxious, racist Southern cop from Live and Let Die. Here he’s playing the ugly American on vacation in Thailand as he complains about the “little people” in their “pajamas” and tells us loudly how he does it better in Louisiana. The portrayal is offensive and reeks of anti-Americanism – in fact, this is the third of three films written by Tom Mankiewicz, each of which contains whiffs of anti-Americanism.

The one good thing to come out of this painful scene was an incredible stunt where Bond jumps an AMC Hornet over a broken bridge while doing an aerial twist. The stunt is fantastic... but the filmmakers ruin it by mocking it with a slide-whistle noise.

I think the problem was this. As Lawrence Meyers noted at BH, each Bond film takes on a theme and runs that theme throughout. The theme here was a circus theme. Hence, Scaramanga’s story starts with him shooting an elephant trainer. He uses a mirrored funhouse as a hunting ground. The Solex is hidden in a bag of peanuts. Henchman Nick Nack (HervĂ© Villachaize) dresses more like a ring master than a servant. They use the Queen Elizabeth as a setting for MI-6, which is built at a diagonal angle. Etc. In effect, they took the absolutely worst possible theme, a comedic circus theme, and they interwove that with the strong, serious plotline discussed above. That’s why this film sits in the middle... its plot deserves to be near the top, but the stupidity from the circus-comedy they interwove with the plot deserves to be near the bottom. Essentially, this is two incompatible films rammed awkwardly together.
Bond Quality: This was Roger Moore’s second Bond film and already there were warning signs. In Live and Let Die, Moore played the role fairly seriously. In this film, the lounge lizard personality he would come to embody began to appear at times. He comes across as less physical and foppish; Moore apparently looks sufficiently strange running that they hired a stunt man to run for him. There are few fights and Bond even lets young girls do his fighting. He seems indifferent or standoffish to the women he encounters too. And he ultimately has a hard time showing that he believes what is happening to his character. This only gets worse from hereon out for him.

The Bond Girl: Maud Adams plays Scaramanga’s mistress. By all rights, she should be the Bond girl here, but she gets killed midway through the film. It is great that her character is the reason for the film, having tried to trick Bond into killing her lover, whom she fears, and being the driver of the stronger portion of the film. That said, like Moore, Adams is a cold fish and does not project emotion or urgency onto the screen. Still, she is adequate and her character is great. The other one is the problem.
The real Bond girl here is Britt Ekland as Mary Goodnight. She has been heavily criticized for this film, and deservedly so. She has zero sex appeal or chemistry with Bond. Her character has been described as “an astoundingly stupid blonde British agent.” She is constantly doing things that only happen in sitcoms, like locking herself into the trunk of a car or using her butt to accidentally start a laser. She inhabits the comedic portion of this film and everything about her and the character was the wrong choice.

Villain Quality: Finally, we come to the villain. In a vacuum, Scaramanga is one of the top villains the series has produced. Indeed, even critics who have panned the film have called him one of the best villains in the series. He’s Bond’s equal as an assassin; he has skills, which most of the others don’t. He’s cold blooded and ruthless, yet Christopher Lee also injects joy and likeability into him. He is compelling. He even has the strongest back stories of all the villains. His story begins with him killing a man who killed an elephant he cared for - this is something many people can sympathize with and makes him understandable. But from this, he finds he has a talent for killing and he decides to make use of it. Eventually, he becomes a KGB assassin, but then goes independent and is now considered the best in the world. This is real depth and compares very favorably to the dull misanthropic billionaires Bond usually fights.
He’s also one of the more complete villains. Many of the others seem to have no purpose in life except to plan some scheme and then wait to see if Bond stops them. Scaramanga is different. He’s going about his normal business as an assassin, having been contracted by billionaire industrialist Hai Fat. He has a relationship with Maud Adams. He seems to enjoy life. Bond doesn’t obsess him, which really makes him feel like a “whole character” who has an existence outside the plot.

His weak spots really are the comedic elements that are thrust upon him at times, though he largely inhabits the serious portions of the story. It also seems strange that he kills Hai Fat and takes over his business, as that contradicts his character. I also would have preferred it if he didn’t own a private island, but there seems to be no escaping that in this series at this time... at least it’s not crawling with jumpsuited henchmen! All told, he is a great villain.

What you have here is two films laying on top of each other. The film involving Scaramanga, Bond and Adams is a serious film with a fantastic plot, a solid Bond girl and a great villain, which deserves to be considered a top Bond film. The film involving the other characters is a lousy comedy that mocks the film and deserves to be ranked at the bottom of the Bond films. This combination makes the film much better than it deserves to be, but nowhere near what it should have been. And that is why this film is No. 0015 of 0023.


tryanmax said...

This is one I've watched recently and I think you summed it up perfectly. Actually, it's amazing how many films there are out there that seem to be two films rammed together. How can there be so many?

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Thanks. You know, I've noticed that as well. There are a ton of films that seem to be two completely separate films that end up rammed together uncomfortably. I'm honestly not sure why that is.

It is possible that you have two different visions for the film that clashed... like the writer and the director. It's possible they felt the first draft of the film was "too ___" so they tried to fix that, and in the process injected an incompatible second film into it. I'm really not sure there is a consistent answer.

What is interesting about this film though is that you actually can separate the characters into the two films and they rarely crossover. Only Bond moves between the two and he seems rather annoyed whenever he's dragged into the comedy. I would bet that you could actually edit the comedy out of this film without losing the dramatic film.

K said...

Dead on, Andrew.

As you say, the film would have been so much better if they had continued the initial plot to it's conclusion and cut back on the comedy relief. It would have been even more cool if "Q" had taken some vacation time to give Bond some unofficial help as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks K. I think that if they had stayed with the more serious tone throughout, this would have been a special Bond film. But they didn't.

I'm frankly surprised that no one saw what they were doing and decided to make some changes. Surely someone-- writer, director, producer -- must have realized they were making a turd?

I actually wouldn't have gone with Q. I would have gone with making the final fight with Bond and Scaramanga more physical.

shawn said...

Oh those wacky, campy 70s and their jiggle-mania. This was era of Three's Company and Charlie's Angels. And this film was a precursor of things to follow. It is definitely a product of it's times.

Like Andrew,I have somewhat mixed feelings for this film.

Moore is still playing it pretty straight, but you can see the beginnings of the fop. I admit, I thought the two girls were somewhat humorous, but the martial arts scenes were just plain sad. Especially compared to the stuff we see in this day and age.

My opinion on Moore's Bond through the series: he started off as Dean Martin, but quickly turned into Jerry Lewis.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Good way to describe Moore: Dean to Lewis. At this point, he's still mostly serious, though you are starting to see signs of the fop he will become. It's not a complete picture of it yet, but there are hints.

And you're right too about this film being a prisoner of its era. If this same film had been made in the Connery era or today, everything about the style would have been more serious and more credible... everything from the clothes to the cars to the music to the dialog. This is a "70s film" in the worst sense of the word, and that handicaps what should otherwise be a really solid story.

Anonymous said...

Yes, too high. :-)

To be fair, I haven't seen this one in years but, when I watched all the Connery/Moore films in order, this was my least favorite. I hated Nick Nack, hated Mary Goodnight, hated the redneck sheriff (again!)... nothing worked for me, save for Christopher Lee and John Barry's music.

I'm willing to give it another shot but the best part about this movie was that we got The Spy Who Loved Me afterwards. :-)

Anthony said...

There is no Bond film that bores me more than Golden Gun. I didn't like anything about it but what really killed it for me was Goodnight. They essentially made the wildly incompetent Bond girl (Rosie Carver) that quickly died in Live and Let Die a major character.

I've watched all of the other Bond movies multiple times. I've only seen Golden Gun twice (the second time to see if it was as bad as I remembered).

Tennessee Jed said...

Of course arguing about a particular ranking of a Bond film is an exercise in futility. I will say that to me, this is one of the more memorable of the Roger Moore Bond films. And, I really agree with most of the points you make. For me, what made it particularly good: the location was good, particularly Scaramonga's lair. Christopher Lee is a legend in horror films and was a great choice. Herve V. is a nice addition. And the stupid sherriff .... there is no better example of what is wrong with so many of the Bond films. My biggest area of disagreement is with your casual and somewhat cruel dismissal of Britt Eckland as Mary Goodnight. Of course, we are talking men's opinions of Bond girls which is (thank God) entirely individual and subjective. "One man gathers what another man sews." That little bikini was pretty much state of the art at the time :)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You hated the comedic elements. That's where the problem lies. All of the things you mention were in the comedy side of the film. Without those, this would be a much better and higher ranked film.

BTW, to prove that Barry is not infallible, he's the one who put the slide-whistle into the film. The director then debated removing it, but didn't.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I actually find this much more watchable than View to a Kill or the Dalton films, but I agree, this one goes seriously wrong. Not only did the comedic stuff kill the mood, but it killed the pacing. It ends up causing these long breaks in the film as we waste time doing things like watching the redneck act like a nasty tourist. I'd love to see this film edited down to remove those things and see how people like it then.

As for Carver, good point. At least Carver had the excuse of being a new agent, but Goodnight just doesn't belong in a Bond film... she belongs in a sitcom.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, The bikini may have been state of the art (lol), but the way they used the character was horrible. They should at least have made her competent.

In terms of Moore, I do think this is one of his better films actually. This is memorable, it has some solid moments, and it doesn't feel as "lounge lizardy" as his later films.

This film should have been much better, but it's not as bad as people think on first impulse.

K said...

I would have gone with making the final fight with Bond and Scaramanga more physical.

Q gives Bond stuff to help him find and defeat S, but loses stuff before big fight without gadgets. Heightened tension baby.*

*and a bit hackneyed too. :)

djskit said...

I really liked this on when I was 10 years old and watched on the ABC Sunday Night Movie.

Rustbelt said...

djskit said "I really liked this on when I was 10 years old and watched on the ABC Sunday Night Movie."

djskit, then this Link's for you!

Tennessee Jed said...

I never worried all that much about Bond girls as characters per se.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, this is a well done, thought-out review. I agree that the 70's comedy tropes held this film back big time, wrecking an otherwise solid plot.

On Scaramanga, I would also add how Lawrence Meyers noted his insecurity as a villain in the Goldfinger mold. (He sees himself as a circus freak; he keeps a midget as an assistant so that he's the bigger man; he seeks Bond's approval so as to validate himself; and by besting Bond, he'll prove he is the best in the world.) I might add, IMHO, that taking over Hai Fat's business does fit his character. Such an action might move him from freakish outsider to legitimate businessman- if only in the Tony Lucchese mold.)

And, to give credit to Roger, he never took the role seriously to begin with. A friend of mine recounted an interview he'd seen on TV. Basically, Moore said Bond would be the world's worst secret agent- everyone knows who he is (so much for being a SECRET agent), he drinks too much (caught off guard while drunk), sleeps with every woman he can (lack of focus and leaving himself open to 'compromising' situations), and blatantly staying out in the open instead of low key (and letting his enemies have free shots at him). The ridiculous 70's scripts, obviously, didn't help. So, as they became sillier, Roger apparently decided to go along in that direction and collect his paycheck.

BTW, I know this has probably been noted before, but why no mention of the song? I think this film's song is one of the best in the series. It's also interwoven well into the movie's score as well.

And yeah, the slide whistle ruins one of the best, non-CGI stunts in film history.

AndrewPrice said...

K, If they did it right, then it would have worked. But at this point, I suspect you would get all kinds of silly tech stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I used to love them all on ABC's Sunday Night Movie. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Nice link! Notice that they only showed the serious parts of the film.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Thanks Rustbelt!

That is a great point by Meyers. Scaramanga is insecure and I think that gives us this fantastic relationship between him and Bond where he's trying to get Bond's approval and treats him with respect, while deriving joy at besting him. He's almost giddy at times, yet he's never cocky. It makes for a great, complete villain... not at all cardboard.

On Moore, there is a real sense that he doesn't take the role seriously. And if that interview is right (and I think I have heard him say that before), that definitely proves it. Honestly, if he didn't like the character, he should have stepped aside. But oh well. The result is that his movies haven't held up well, once you get away from the hype of them being new.

As an aside, his role in Cannonball Run actually hurts his reputation as Bond to me, because he plays the parody of Bond the same way he plays Bond. That's a little disturbing.

I like the song a lot, but to me, it's not the best in the series. In some ways, it's too literal for me... it just lists what happens. I prefer the allusions in something like "Thunderball" where Bond gets described in broad character terms. But of course, reasonable minds can certainly differ when it comes to the songs.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, I've only seen pieces of the 'Cannonball' movies, so I can't comment on Moore's performance there. But he did start out serious in 'Live and Let Die.' So, maybe if he'd gotten more serious scripts (a la 'Dr. No,' or FRWL), he might have done a better job, Ah, who knows?

And I've been thinking about the joy and gitty-ness you've been mentioning about Scaramanga. When was the last time you saw a movie where Christopher Lee was that happy? Sure, he gets a lot of flack from people who say he only got the role by being Ian Fleming's cousin (by marriage, I think). I believe he really enjoyed getting a chance to play against the common style he used in his horror roles- hence the happiness.
Having seen several Lee/Cushing horror films, Lee always got the stern, dialogue-oriented roles that allowed him to use his powerful voice and intensity. (Peter Cushing, by contrast, tended to get understated parts that required LOTS of physical acting to fill the proverbial 'gaps in the script,' so to speak.)
So, maybe that's another reason Scaramanga is so appealing. We get to see a different side of a truly great actor.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, True. You never see Lee inject joy into his roles. And the couple times he's tried it, like for 30 seconds in Attack of the Clowns, it comes across as forced. Here he really comes across as enjoying himself. He is loving the challenge... he's almost giddy in a way. You don't see that in other Lee movies and you don't see that in other Bond villains, who treat Bond with disdain or hate. It makes him stand out and it makes this character feel special.

In Cannonball, he plays a man who is acting like the fake secret agent he plays in films. Essentially, he's Moore doing Bond with two brief scenes where he pretends to not really be Bond. The portrayal is meant to be a parody, but it's so close to the way he plays Bond that it feel like he's mocking the Bond role.

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