Monday, February 2, 2009

James Bond review: The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)

CUT TO THE CHASE: It’s the cigar.

BOND, JAMES BOND: This film shouldn’t work. For most people I guess it doesn’t: it’s usually considered one of the worst installments in the series. Even by my own standards it should be at least as mixed a bag as Live And Let Die is.

But somehow, it doesn’t, to put it bluntly, suck. In fact, I consider it the best of the Roger Moore Bonds.

In the end, this film works for the same reason Goldfinger did: because it knows perfectly well what it’s up to. Here, it’s all about the cigar. Moore’s still chomping on that cigar here at key moments – when checking out a belly dancer in Beirut, when waiting for his quarry outside a Macau topless bar, when preparing to infiltrate the bad guy’s compound in Bangkok. As in the previous movie, this simple prop manages to crystallize all the devil-may-care charm and profligate handsomeness that Moore brings to the role.

What Makes Bond Bond: “…if she gets me the Solex Agitator first.” “First? James, you must be good.” And then he raises his eyebrow, as if the thought had never crossed his mind that lesser mortals might not be able to convert bad girls to good merely by sleeping with them.

What Makes Roger Moore Roger Moore: Well, the cigar, natch.

BAD GUYS: The other reason this movie succeeds so well is because it gets creative in the villain department, and in the process comes up with perhaps the single best opponent Bond ever faces. Not the scariest or the meanest, necessarily. Just the best.

As we’ve seen, the formula is to pit Bond against an Evil Mastermind with a plot to take over the world/extort gobs of money from the great powers/destroy humanity/whatever. This villain, the idea man, is assisted by one or more Evil Henchmen, hired muscle, whom Bond must fight his way through to get to the Evil Mastermind. Goldfinger/Oddjob, Blofeld/Wint and Kidd, Kananga/Tee Hee, etc.

Here the Evil Mastermind is Hai Fat, who wants to corner the market on solar power and make a fortune—i.e., extort gobs of money from the great powers. His Evil Henchman is Scaramanga, an assassin par excellence.

But they upend the formula by introducing Scaramanga first, then having him bump off Hai Fat halfway through the movie. In effect the mastermind’s evil plot is just a red herring, a decoy, while we get down to the real business of the movie, which is Scaramanga vs. James Bond.

This is a true meeting of equals, of knights in armor jousting. It helps that Christopher Lee, as Scaramanga, is Christopher damn Lee. That dignity, that voice. (The man played Dracula, Saruman, and Scaramanga – how cool is that?) But it also helps that the producers know just what Scaramanga is doing in this piece.

He’s aspiring to be like James Bond. He affects (in terms of the character) an upper-class British accent despite a circus upbringing. When Bond recommends a good wine he takes notes. It nearly drives him round the bend when Bond hints that Scaramanga may not qualify as a true gentleman.

Scaramanga is us.

And, let’s not forget, he has a cigar of his own. That golden gun.

Yes, this movie succeeds because it knows what James Bond is all about.

P.S. Scaramanga, of course, has his own henchman, Nick Nack, played by Hervé Villechaize. You’ll be forgiven if, when you see him on Scaramanga’s island, you cry out, “Boss, Boss, de plane, de plane!” Especially if you wait to do it until Bond’s plane lands. But Nick Nack is actually one of my favorite henchmen. It’s his sheer bloodlust that makes him fun to watch: he doesn’t care if Bond dies or Scaramanga—just as long as somebody bites it.

GRATUITOUS SEX: The natural look prevails again, but boy does it prevail. With Maud Adams as the main Bond girl and Britt Eklund in support, this film lacks nothing at all in the Bond Girl department. You can decide for yourself if he locked the right one in the closet.

Carmen du Sautoy deserves special mention for her turn as a Lebanese belly dancer. It’s a close-but-no-cigar moment, however, which leaves this film with a GS quotient of 2. But a good 2.

AND VIOLENCE: This is one of the reasons I say this film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Enter the Dragon came out the year before, and for a stretch in the middle this film apes the martial arts genre as much as its predecessor had blaxploitation. Apes or spoofs; it’s hard to tell, really. The sequence in the martial arts school is pretty badly done, but it might be too charitable to say it was on purpose. (Okay, Hip’s nieces are pretty cool.)

We also get a reprise of the speedboat chases from Live And Let Die – and this meant they just couldn’t resist (why, oh why couldn’t they resist?) bringing back Sheriff Pepper. For the ten minutes he’s in it, this is the worst of the Bonds.

To top it all off, this film furnishes the single best example of what would eventually ruin the Moore-era Bonds. There’s one genuine historic stunt in the film, a car doing a spiral as it leaps over a canal, and it’s a fine jump, reasonably death-defying and more-or-less appropriate to the scene. But they add a goofy sound effect while the car is in the air that totally destroys the mood. Silence would have accented the sight just as well, while not making the stunt into a joke.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Q’s back, and he even earns a measure of M’s wrath right along with 007.

But Scaramanga gets the best gadgets this time around. That car/plane, although we can never decide if it’s cool or silly. And of course his golden gun, which doubles as a pen, a cigarette case, and a lighter. Watch the way Christopher Lee lovingly assembles it prior to use. We may think it’s the gadgets themselves we like about a Bond movie, but in reality, I think it’s the way characters behave with the gadgets. Lee understands this.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Lebanon, Macau, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and an island in the South China Sea. Can’t ask for a better set of exotic locations than that.

ETC.: The title sequence is forgettable, as if the esteemed Mr. Binder is running out of ideas. He’d redeem himself, though. Meanwhile, Lulu’s title song, like so much else about this film, is rather unpopular, but I love it. Aware that she’s not as seductive as Shirley Bassey, she simply attacks the song for all she’s worth. That makes up for a lot: it’s an electrifying performance… Add a double-decker bus, a hang glider, and a private plane to the list of things Bond drives… As I say, this film imitates Enter the Dragon (it even has a mirror stage), it brings back the odious Sheriff Pepper, and it assumes an inappropriate comic tone at moments. All of these should ruin the film. But they don’t.

RATING: 007.

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