The Man with the Golden Gun never capitalizes on what makes it exceptional. Instead, it emphasizes and develops its routine elements, but sadly even many of those are substandardly performed.
The film’s most remarkable feature, and the seed of what could have made it great, is the villain: Christopher Lee’s Francisco Scaramanga, an infamous and deadly assassin who makes a million dollars a kill—the man with the golden gun. All the prior films are dominated by mastermind villains trying to take over the world, extort nations, exacerbate the cold war, or build criminal empires. Scaramanga has no geopolitical ambitions. As Aren points out in his review, Kanaga in Live and Let Die is a business-minded villain, but, unlike Kanaga, Scaramanga is master of no vast organization. His desires are individual, and he only has one assistant, Nick Nack (two if you count the technician on the island who is suddenly introduced late in the film, mostly to leer at Britt Ekland’s bikini-clad Bond girl). Scaramanga only values money, his reputation as a hitman, and (presumably) his swanky, bizarre island lair. Even though the solar cell-charging “solex agitator” is thrown into the plot (in a nod to the 1970s energy crises), Scaramanga simply plans to sell it to the highest bidder.
It is Scaramanga’s obsession with Bond that is the main source of conflict in The Man with the Golden Gun. At first, it appears that the notorious Scaramanga is out to kill Bond, but it is later revealed that his mistress Andrea Anders (Maud Adams, who returned to play Octopussy), actually sent the letter in order to rope Bond into freeing her. In fact, as Scaramanga later explains to Bond, he has nothing but respect for 007, and their eventual duel is more about personal pride and prowess than antagonism.
The villain closest to Scaramanga in the previous films would seem to be Red Grant, the SPECTRE counteragent trailing Bond in From Russia with Love. The pre-credits sequence of The Man with the Golden Gun even echoes the death of the faux Bond at the start off From Russia with Love, with Scaramanga shooting a wax statue of 007 and instigating our anticipation of their eventual showdown. Like Grant, Scaramanga is Bond’s structural counterpart in the film—an evil doppelganger of sorts—and it’s interesting how Christopher Lee plays off of Moore’s debonair manner, whereas Robert Shaw mirrored Connery’s dominating physical presence. Lee is the film’s strongest point, and yet I remain unsatisfied with the time his character is given. The friction between Bond and Scaramanga is the energy that drives this film, and it should have occupied most of the narrative. Such scenes as the debate over dinner about whether Bond’s licence to kill resembles Scaramanga’s sinister profession point to what the film could have been had it focused on their relationship. Instead, their conflict is dulled by the constant intrusions of other plot threads, needless location jumping, and silly characters.
Just as Live and Let Die exploited blaxploitation for topicality, The Man with the Golden Gun uses its multiple Asian settings to include various martial arts movie aspects (as You Only Live Twice did before it). Not counting the initial salvo into the Near East (Beirut), the film chiefly follows Bond to the Far East. He visits Macau, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and then an island in the South China Sea (in actuality, the island is in Thailand, and now is a tourist destination called James Bond Island). While an inordinate desire to show off more exotic locales seems to motivate the constant jumping around more than narrative necessity, the main problem with the settings is the conflation and jumbling of various East Asian and Southeast Asian cultures. For example, based on the architecture of his compound, it would seem that Hai Fat (Richard Loo), the billionaire who’s hired Scaramanga, is a Chinese business man living in Thailand—a plausible situation—but the nearby martial arts school suggests that the film is comfortable conflating Chinese and Thai cultures. This flies in the face of You Only Live Twice’s pronounced interest in Japanese culture, and its efforts at a more accurate travelogue.
The Man with Golden Gun is probably Moore’s most physical performance. The cramped brawl in the Beirut change room fits into the series’ tradition of Bond trashing a confined space when fighting some minions. Moore’s performance here has a bit more edge than his later films, but even if one compares the most ferocious moment, one can see how distinct his Bond is from Connery’s. As he threatens to break Andrea’s arm, Moore’s voice pulls back to refinement when he asks for information. Gone is the cruel look that accompanies Connery’s violence. Moore’s Bond will break a woman’s arm or push a street urchin overboard for the sake of his mission, but we don’t see the same enjoyment. Rather, immediately following his mistreatment of Andrea, Moore is already playing the seducer and trying to smooth things over. He’s more of the lover than the fighter, and the two tendencies don’t seem to entwine in the tastes of Moore’s Bond.
The interrogation incident also leads to Bond’s best line in the film. Bond demands to know how he will recognize Scaramanga at a certain night club, and when Andrea points out Scaramanga’s physical oddity—his superfluous third nipple—Bond ribs her: “Oh. Fascinating anatomical tidbit, but probably the most useless piece of information I ever heard. Unless of course the Bottom’s Up is a strip club and Scaramanga is performing there.” Bond is half right though, and as Moore tries to smooth things over with Andrea over champagne, he quips: “Bottom’s up.” They drink and the film cuts to just that at the club. The match cut is a hilarious visual pun, but the straight-up ass shot also demonstrates how Moore’s Bond fits comfortably into the looser sexual more’s of 1970s cinema.
Britt Ekland’s Bond girl, Mary Goodnight is—there’s no other way to put this—a dumb blonde. The film only conceives of her in this way, and refuses to let her escape the stereotype. Goodnight is Bond’s assistant in Hong Kong, and she’s continually making the worst decisions (and sleeping with Bond after how he insults her is one of them). Some have complained about the performance, but I actually think Ekland plays her part well. Take the scene where Bond hides her in the closet: her facial expressions create a pretty funny comic moment. The problem is that the film only wants her to be gorgeous and stupid, and so, sadly, Britt Ekland, one of the sex symbols of the 1970s, is rendered a pretty forgettable Bond girl.
The film also inelegantly handles Hervé Villechaize’s Nick Nack, the dwarf major-domo (and cordon bleu chef, we’re told) of Scaramanga. (Villechaize played a similar character on TV’s Fantasy Island). For most of the film, Villechaize’s diminutive stature is part of his character, not just a novelty or joke. He’s capable, and he capitalizes on his small stature when people, including Bond, overlook him. The filmmakers make two poor choices in respect to Nick Nack though. While Scaramanga lives in a bizarre fantasy funhouse lair, the intrusion of those elements into the Chinese garden at night is too outlandish. Having Nick Nack wear a bizarre devil costume and wield a pitchfork smacks too much of the circus sideshow. Worse, the filmmakers’ throw in a redundant, lame, and tasteless additional climax, as Nick Nack attacks Bond and Goodnight on a Chinese junk as they escape the exploding island. What’s motivating Nick Nack here? After all, Scaramanga has been goading Nick Nack throughout the film to try to find someone to kill him (as a test of his abilities), and if Nick Nack were successful he was supposed to inherit everything. Is it revenge for blowing up the island he wanted to live on then? In any case, seeing Bond catch Nick Nack in a suitcase makes Bond look like a bully, and his final placement in a cage hung from the mast leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths.
And then we come to J. W. Pepper, the racist Southern sheriff from Live and Let Die. He’s obviously a joke, and I think his overblown bigotry is supposed to a satirical part of that joke, but if Pepper’s around mostly to call Thai people “pointy heads” he would have been best left out. Guy Hamilton seems obsessed with mocking Americans in his Bond films, but relocating Pepper to Thailand as a tourist in order to continue to do so is a clumsy choice. The first moment, when Bond whizzes by on a boat and Pepper slowly recognizes Bond as the secret agent who wreaked havoc in his Southern parish would have been a nice little joke and a sufficient addition. Why Hamilton thought Pepper should become Bond’s deputy for the duration of the car chase is beyond me. It’s one of those poor choices that goes on for so long it becomes powerfully awkward. The car stunts are good, but Pepper’s howling and slobbering deflates them of stakes and slickness. The full-rotation car jump is astonishing—because it is real!—but the amazing stunt is reduced to a joke with the stupid addition of the slide whistle.
Sadly, the filmmakers were more interested in having mechanical wings that attach to Scaramanga’s car so it can fly away than in developing Scaramanga into what could have been the most fearsome and fascinating Bond villain. The fact that I found the movie still moderately enjoyable in spite of its many missed opportunities and its tendency towards stupidity is either a testament to what strengths remain or an indication of my own basest film-watching tendencies.
6 out of 10
The Man with the Golden Gun (UK, 1974)
Directed by Guy Hamilton; screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz, based on the novel by Ian Fleming; starring Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Maud Adams, Hervé Villechaize, Clifton James, Richard Loo, Soon-Tek Oh, Marc Lawrence, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewelyn.