James Bond Declassified: File #9 - Moore is less in the silly 'Man With The Golden Gun'
Christopher Lee gives it his best, but the series is starting to sag
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JAMES BOND 007 DECLASSIFIED
FILE #9: "The Man With The Golden Gun"
This series will trace the cinema history of James Bond, while also examining Ian Fleming's original novels as source material and examining how faithful (or not) the films have been to his work.
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz
Produced by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman
CHARACTERS / CAST
James Bond / Roger Moore
Scaramanga / Christopher Lee
Mary Goodnight / Britt Ekland
Andrea Anders / Maud Adams
Nick Nack / Herve Villechaize
Hai Fat / Richard Loo
Hip / Soon-Tek Oh
Chew Mee / Francoise Therry
J. W. Pepper / Clifton James
Rodney / Marc Lawrence
Lazar / Marne Maitland
M / Bernard Lee
Moneypenny / Lois Maxwell
Q / Desmond Llewelyn
This is one seriously weird Bond film.
There's something almost "Prisoner"-esque about the film's opening sequence. I like how in the book, Scaramanga's third nipple is mentioned in passing as part of a briefing dossier, but in the film, they immediately zoom in on his chest in extreme close-up with a dramatic music sting, as if this is important plot information that we're going to need later.
In the opening, a Chicago mobster played by Marc Lawrence (who also appeared in a small role in "Diamonds Are Forever") arrives on Scaramanga's private island home, where he is greeted by Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize), who pays him half of an agreed-upon amount to stalk and kill Scaramanga. Once he begins, the house becomes a sort of weird wax museum funhouse, and both Scaramanga and the mobster find themselves lost in it, even as Nick Nack taunts them through overhead speakers. The production design is amazing, and Christopher Lee is very creepy in his track suit, enjoying the hunt. It's basically the more surreal version of the relationship that Clouseau and Kato have in the "Pink Panther" films. It is Nick Nack's job to try to kill his boss, and their relationship has this great tension as a result. I'm willing to bet this film is what won Herve his job as Tattoo on "Fantasy Island," since he's sort of playing a riff on that character here.
This being the first of the series that I'm reviewing off of the amazing new Blu-ray box set "Bond 50," I am able to enjoy details I've never noticed before, like the way the mobster's envelope full of cash is a stack of ten dollar bills or the fact that Scaramanga dresses to the left. Thanks for that detail, Blu-ray. I was hoping for some new nightmare fodder, and a graphic close-up of Christopher Lee's manhood in a wet white bathing suit should do nicely.
Right around this point, when Moore took over as James Bond, the opening title sequences became even more elaborate than before. They also became a bit more graphic, and the amount of nudity on display in just the opening titles here would keep the film from getting a PG by today's standards. It's one thing when you've got silhouettes of obviously naked women, but when you're not working in silhouette anymore, it's a little surprising. I'm also sort of amazed by one part of the sequence where the camera pushes in on the undulating crotch of one of the silhouettes, close enough that there's little doubt what we're looking at.
The theme song performed by Lulu has always struck me as a feeble attempt at a Bond theme, the title belted out and surrounded by lyrics that I can't remember even though I just watched the scene three minutes ago. It's almost perfunctory. As much as I like Maurice Binder's work and these scenes in general, this feels like it was phoned in on all fronts. Not the strongest start to a Bond film, honestly, but certainly of a piece with the strange opening that feels like a recycled and far less interesting version of the "From Russia With Love" opening scene, right down to the fake James Bond that the villain "kills."
The end of "Live and Let Die" didn't really suggest any particular direction for Bond in this film, and he doesn't appear in the opening sequence, so the big question, the opening move by Maibaum and Mankiewicz, is where do you pick things up with Bond? Is he troubled by his past? Is he having fun on the job? Is he a badass or a playboy? Even after seeing "Live and Let Die," I wasn't sure who Roger Moore's Bond was meant to be. This is the film where I think they set the tone for what was to come. This is the film where Roger Moore staked his claim on the character, love it or hate it.
I'll say this much… I don't think my first image of Bond in the film would be my lead actor playing the wax figure version of himself.
I like Moore's actual introduction. Instead of trying to up the scale of earlier introductions or do something meta-textual and clever, it's just a simple shot of Moore stepping into M's office and greeting some other assembled brass. And from M, a single question: "What do you know about a man called Scaramanga?"
"Scaramanga? Oh, yes. The man with the golden gun." It's elegant. Bond's a bit of a showoff because he knew his background. He knows he's being tested, so he rubs their collective noses in just how prepared he is. There's a smug sort of English posh thing going on in Moore's work that is different from anyone else's approach so far. There's been a bullet sent to MI6 headquarters, from Scaramanga, with "007" scratched onto it. It's a warning, and MI6 doesn't screw around. They relieve him of active duty and tell him to go to ground, but Bond isn't having any. He tells M that he's going to find Scaramanga first, eliminating the threat.
So far so good, right? The first moment I got nervous about Moore comes when he's trying to retrieve the bullet that killed an agent before him, which is now being worn as decoration by the belly dancer who was with him when he died. As Bond is trying to retrieve it from her navel, the bad guys burst into the room and karate chop him, and he swallows the bullet, complete with cartoon bug eyes. It's a move that reads as pure farce, and the fight that follows is about as unconvincing as if you cast me in a movie about totally shredded MMA fighters.
The Q scene where they're trying to figure out who made the bullet is a great example of how certain things started to get set in stone as the series progressed. It's really there as an exposition bridge to get 007 to go to Macao, but the background is full of things blowing up and gadgets being tested, and Desmond Llewelyn's annoyance with Bond is in full delicious bloom. As a kid, I always thought the reason they recast Bond was because Connery was getting older, but looking at him here, Moore started the series already showing a lot of wear and tear. He's old enough in the film to make it creepy when he hits on young women.
I really like the sequence in Macau. Lazar is a great example of what these movies can do well, giving us colorful characters at each stop as Bond works his way towards the main villain of the film. Of course, Lazar's scene also underlines my complaint that everyone in the world seems to know who James Bond is, making him the worst secret agent who ever lived. Bond must not understand the meaning of the word "secret." I also like the use of Hong Kong here. I am fascinated by the way they just left the wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in the harbor, and I think it's sort of a genius idea to use that wreck as a major set for the film. This is one of those cases where the production design really pays off a cool idea, and the sets that Peter Murton built are disorienting and clever.
On the other hand, I'm mystified by the idea that the producers thought it was okay to have Maud Adams play two major roles in Bond films within a decade. Are we not supposed to remember that she was in this film? It's not like there's some dearth of beautiful women in the world for the producers to cast. I'm certainly not complaining about having to look at Adams in two different movies, but she's so distinct that it just strikes me as a very strange choice.
More Blu-ray revelations: when Bond lets himself onto Hai Fat's property and encounters the fetching Chew Mee in the pool, it was always apparent from the first shot that she was nude, but the new print leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. I am amazed at what they show in a PG film, and I would imagine if the MPAA could get their shot at re-rating these films by today's standards, the ratings would be very different.
Bond really does come off as a dummy in the film. His plan to present himself as Scaramanga to Hai Fat fails immediately, and when Bond returns to have dinner with Hai Fat, he gets into a fight with two sumo wrestlers that involves Bond grabbing one guy's butt and giving him a super-wedgie, a baffling moment. It's also one of those films where the bad guys don't kill Bond when they have the chance, meaning they get what they deserve later. Note to all villains: when you have the hero unconscious, go ahead and finish him off. If you don't, you can't cry later when he throws you into a tank of piranha.
Even though I'm not crazy about the Lulu song, John Barry does a great job of using the hook from the song in the score for the film, and there's some great Barry work here. I like the way he does the Hong Kong riff on the song and the way he punctuates scenes with it.
By the way… it occurs to me that a martial arts school that allows fights to the death at every lesson must have a remarkable turn-over rate in students. Roger Moore looks stiff as a board in the sequence, as unlikely a martial artist as I can imagine, and it's quite telling that he is ultimately saved by two schoolgirls before he delivers a silly "Three Stooges" style punchline to the fight. I have to wonder what the producers were thinking any time they had Moore run in a scene. The more stationary he is, the more Bond-like he can pretend to be. When he runs, it's like the top half of his body is fused in place.
One hour in, the first real stunt sequence begins just as we are re-introduced to the delightful J.W. Pepper, who was, of course, the redneck sheriff in "Live and Let Die," now somehow coincidentally on vacation in the exact spot where Bond is being chased. His bellowing racism is played once again for laughs, and his appearance is a clear indicator that these films are increasingly being played for laughs. There are moments in the film that aren't funny at all. There's a disturbing moment where Scaramanga molests Andrea with his golden gun that is short but genuinely grotesque, and the moment where Scaramanga sits in Hai Fat's office and builds his golden gun from common objects he carries with him is one of those great Bond movie gadget moments. When I was a kid, my dad bought a replica of the gun that actually worked, and I loved being able to put it together before we went shooting.
Moore's Bond definitely seems to have a type. Britt Ekland looks startlingly like Barbara Bach in this film, but as spies go, Bach was great at what she did, while Ekland seems barely competent. And Bond is at his most dickish in the scene where he forces Goodnight to hide in a closet and listen while he has sex with Andrea, who claims she wants him to kill Scaramanga and that she's the one who sent the bullet to MI6 as a way of warning Bond. Andrea's death is one of the film's best moments in terms of grounding things and making Scaramanga menacing. But that scene is followed immediately by Goodnight being caught and thrown in a trunk with absolutely no effort at all. Then Bond steals a car that just happens to have J.W. Pepper sitting in it, making two completely coincidental encounters with the same character in one movie. If it weren't bad enough that Bond drives an AMC Hornet in the car chase, Pepper's "hilarious" banter during the sequence is just awful. It's crazy that the car chase at almost an hour and a half into the movie is one of only two real action scenes by that point. I'd argue that "TMWTGG" is perhaps the driest of all Bond films in terms of stunts, but it does have one classic image in it. The spiral car jump that Bond does in the Hornet is an amazing piece of physical stunt work, undermined completely by the slide whistle sound effect during it. It's a truly awful choice, no matter how jaw-dropping the image, and Pepper's big broad overreactions don't help, either. By the time the scene ends with Scaramanga turning his car into the single ugliest airplane of all time, it's hard to avoid the feeling that the film has gone completely off the rails. The look on the face of "M" at the end of Bond's follow-up briefing pretty much sums up my own feelings as I revisited the film.
The rest of the movie has a very familiar feeling as Bond manages to track Goodnight to the island hideout where Scaramanga is working to develop a solar power plant. I'm not sure how evil that is, but for the purposes of the film, let's assume it is a really evil solar power plant. The whole payoff of the film is Bond versus Scaramanga, gun against gun, and it's a decent sequence, although nowhere near as satisfying as one would hope. The end of the film features Nick Nack as the final threat after Scaramanga dies, an almost exact repeat of the same beat that was at the end of both "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Live And Let Die," and by this point, it's worn thin.
It's a real shame this is the film where Christopher Lee finally appeared in a Bond film. Related by marriage to Ian Fleming (his mother married one of Fleming's cousins), he was perfectly cast. It's just that the role is so undercooked that there's nothing much to the movie, and it feels like a squandered opportunity. Lee's best moment is the look on his face when he realizes that Bond has shot him through the heart and that he's lost the duel. It's a quick wordless beat, but it says more than the entire rest of the film does about Scaramanga's inner life.
The worst part is that the film then became a template for many of the Moore films that followed, meaning we are heading into some rough waters with this series in the next couple of weeks as we work our way through the Moore years. This was the last film that Harry Saltzman was part of, and it's a disappointing end to his legacy. I have to wonder if Tom Mankiewicz's earlier drafts of the script would have been better, since they focused strictly on the cat-and-mouse relationship between Bond and Scaramanga, a true equal to his talents. This final film's McGuffin chase involving the "Solex" is so dull that I have trouble imagining why the decision was made.
Still, it's got Britt Ekland in a bikini, so it's not a total waste.
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
James Bond will return in
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
One of the unmitigated pleasures of doing this series has been revisiting the books by Fleming. I have to admit that as much I grew up on the films, the books are the source of my real hardcore fandom. Fleming's take on the character and the continuity he built around Bond are amazing, and each time I return to the books, I am struck anew by just how great and lean and brutal Fleming's work was.
Here's a great example of a book that is radically different than the film. This was the last full novel that Fleming wrote about the character, and it came after the Blofeld trilogy, which basically shattered Bond on a personal level. "You Only Live Twice" left the world believing that Bond was dead, and took him to a very dark and strange personal place by its conclusion. This book begins with one of my favorite extended sequences in the entire series, when Bond finally resurfaces after a year of being off the radar. He arrives in London, gaunt and disconnected, and demands an audience with M. Even though everyone warns M not to allow him into his office, M feels an obligation since he's the one who sent Bond on the mission that led to his disappearance in the first place.
As soon as he's in the room, Bond begins to talk about how he was rescued by the KGB and how they finally explained things to him and helped him see the light about the work he'd been doing for his whole career. He pulls a gun and tries to assassinate M, and only barely misses his target. Bond is rushed into a rehab facility for sips who have been compromised, and M tells everyone that he's not going to have Bond brought up on charges. Instead, he wants to see Bond returned to the field, and he's got the exact mission to test his loyalty. They're going to send him after Paco "Pistols" Scaramanga, the most feared hit man in the world, and if he fails, at least he goes down in the service of his government. If he succeeds, then he's James Bond again.
It's a great set-up, and it shows that these adventures have taken a real toll on Bond. He's not some superhero who just picks up and continues without breaking a sweat. The death of Tracy in the novels marks him deeply and leaves him adrift, and it takes time for him to start to deal with it. The relationship he forges with Scaramanga in this film is a dangerous one, and Bond is unhinged enough that it creates some real tension. Scaramanga is a real creep in the book, and I would love to see what Lee could have done playing the character as originally written. The book also brings back Felix Leiter, who was mangled so memorably in the novel version of Live and Let Die. It's a shame that Fleming died before he had a chance to really polish this book, because it's got some cool ideas in it and he pushed Bond to a dark place at the start, one that could have served as a great way of exploring what it means to carry a "00" license for years. The book once again ties in the Jamaican culture that Fleming knew so well, and the political backdrop of the story is far more interesting than the limp solar-powered misdirect that was used in the film. Because this was one of the novels written after the film series had begun, there was a sense that Fleming was starting to add some of the elements of the films into his books, like an increased presence for the Q branch, but he never lived long enough to see how silly the films got.
Maybe that's for the best.
Our Series So Far:
File #1 - "Dr. No" kicks off our look back at the classic series
File #2 - "From Russia With Love" is still one of the best
File #3 - "Goldfinger" takes the series into the realm of pop cartoon
File #4 - "Thunderball" is the first series stumble
File #5 - "You Only Live Twice" rewrites Fleming completely
Father's Day Dossier
File #6 - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" changes everything
File #7 - "Diamonds Are Forever" is Connery's last shot
File #8 - '"Live And Let Die" introduces Roger Moore
James Bond will return...
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