Tuesday, November 03, 2015

007 Week: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Although not precisely a good James Bond film, 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun is not as overtly or consistently unlikable as Diamonds Are Forever (1971), A View to a Kill (1985) or Die Another Day (2002), the three worst franchise outings in 007 history.

Instead, The Man with the Golden Gun showcases the film series’ continuing growing pains as producers attempt to accommodate a new era, a new pop culture, and a new actor, Roger Moore, in the iconic role of British agent 007.

The Man with the Golden Gun is Moore’s second outing, and the formula is clearly not yet perfected. 
For example, the humor (which has been developing and growing as a substantial factor since Diamonds…) is further highlighted here, but there are also remnants of Connery’s tough guy or “brute” image, and they don’t fit the dapper, suave Moore at all.

In terms of the pop culture, The Man with the Golden Gun --  like its predecessor Live and Let Die – also seems intent on aping other successful film forms, rather than innovating within the pre-existing confines of the enduring spy series. 

Live and Let Die’s energy and life-blood emerged from the Blaxploitation film movement of the early 1970s, and similarly, The Man with the Golden Gun is an “Eastern” Bond film arriving in theaters just in time to capitalize on the global box-office’s love affair with Bruce Lee and Kung-Fu films such as Enter the Dragon (1973).

Although it would be easy to scoff at The Man with the Golden Gun’s “energy crisis” plot-line, one can see that the film is veritably loaded with pop culture references of a similar stripe that attempt to keep Bond relevant.  These references include the mention of Evel Knievel, and the sinking of the Queen Elizabeth in 1973. Such touches, actually, help to ground the film, especially when The Man with the Golden Gun threatens to descend into slapstick.  The allusions remind us that the real world is still relevant to Bond’s increasingly fantastic adventures.

Still, there are a number of grievous creative missteps one must contend with in The Man with the Golden Gun, most notably the re-appearance of a stock Southern sheriff, J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) from Live and Let Die. 

And yet, as noted above, the film is not as painful to watch as many of the worst Bonds are. For example, the photography, particularly at Scaramanga’s island paradise, is frequently stunning.

Furthermore, some visual compositions nicely (and covertly…) suggest a unique subtext; a sexual undertone to the action.  Indeed, much the drama in the film emerges, one might conclude, because of the acts of a sexually dissatisfied mistress seeking liberation.

Also -- and this is entirely a personal conclusion -- I enjoy Moore’s performance as Bond here (when he isn’t strong-arming women, anyway…) as a bit of a cad, and a poor sportsman.

It’s pretty clear that his Bond is a hedonist, and one who won’t expend valuable energy if he can gain an advantage without doing so.  

The later Moore films downplayed this aesthetic, so that Bond was more of a traditional “good guy” but The Man with the Golden Gun certainly showcases the secret agent’s naughty side.  Bond dispatches a martial-arts opponent in sneaky, bad-sportsman-style, and I love it.  After all, 007 isn’t playing for the title of world’s nicest secret agent…he’s fighting for his life.  Who cares if he bends the rules a bit?

“He must have found me quite titillating.”

Agent 007, James Bond (Roger Moore) receives a golden bullet with his number engraved on it, a sign that he is the intended target of a high-priced assassin named Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee). 

This grave situation precludes Bond from continuing his hunt for the missing Solex Agitator, a miraculous device that harnesses the energy of the sun, and could be the solution to the ongoing Energy Crisis. 

Instead, Bond tracks down the golden bullet’s origin, and cuts a path from Beirut to Macau, to a Hong Kong casino. 

Bond soon learns that Scaramanga’s mistress, Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) sent him the golden bullet in hopes that 007 would rid her of a man she loathes and despises. 

Bond also learns that Scaramanga is after the critical Solex Agitator and 007 masquerades as the assassin in Bangkok, attempting to learn more from the wealthy industrialist Hi-Fat, a ruse which fails. 

After Bond escapes from a karate school where he is used as a real life training dummy by the students Scaramanga captures Bond’s assistant, lovely Mary Goodnight (Ekland) and takes her, via a flying car, to his private island. 

There, Bond must recover the Agitator, which Scaramanga intends to sell for a huge profit. But the man with the golden gun is more interested in a duel with his greatest rival than the energy crisis…

“You’re the only man in the world that can kill him.”

Rather uniquely for the male-driven Bond series, most of the action in the Man with the Golden Gun is driven by the actions of a woman, Andrea Anders (Maud Adams).  She is Scaramanga’s mistress, and an unsatisfied one at that.

Trapped in her unhappy life with Scaramanga, Anders executes a strategy to rid herself of the assassin and her oppressor.  She sends one of his gold bullets to the only man in the world who can kill him: James Bond. 

Although Scaramanga possesses three nipples -- and men with three nipples are legendarily supposed to possess remarkablesexual prowess -- it is clear that this is a myth in terms of Scaramanga...not a reality.  

As the film opens, we see Andrea bend down on her knees to towel him off after a swim. She kneels before his crotch…and the film cuts immediately to Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize) popping a champagne cork.  

The one-two punch of this edit suggests, quite simply, that Scaramanga can’t hold his wad. He’s a poor lover. Andrea not only hates Scaramanga, she feel s he is a rotten lover.

On at least two other occasions, the camera registers sympathetic close-ups of Andrea Anders during foreplay and love-making, as she practically blanches at Scaramanga’s closeness and touch.  

At one point he fondles her aggressively with his gun, and she turns away in displeasure.  Again, the concept here is one of dissatisfaction, and Bond is the antidote in two ways.  First, he will provide sexual excitement, and second, he will actually kill Scaramanga.

We know Bond is a better lover, in part, because the film shows us that fact.  For example, we witness 007's foreplay with a belly-dancer in Beirut.  He kisses her belly, attempting to extract a golden bullet from her navel.  But what does it look like he's really doing?

It’s clear that Bond is not a stranger then, to using his mouth.  By contrast -- as we have seen -- Scaramanga always leads with his “golden” gun. And he pops his cork too soon!

Given Andrea’s crucial role in the film and the fact that she  literally brings Bond into the action, it’s a shame that the remainder of the film doesn’t score too highly in terms of its treatment of female characters. 

Mary Goodnight, while absolutely gorgeous, is a dumb blond.  One minute she refuses to be another of Bond’s “passing fancies,” and literally the next moment she has undressed for him in his hotel room and is ready to bed him.  She also ends up trapped in a car's trunk for much of the film's last act.

Similarly, the scene in which Bond questions Andrea and threatens to break her arm is literally cringe-inducing.  Roger Moore absolutely has his talents and skills as 007, but he just looks mean -- and horrible -- slapping Andrea and twisting her arm. These moments play as horribly anachronistic today, and they are wrong, tonally, for a Moore picture.  This Bond shouldn't be violent towards women.

Moore is much better, I feel, when his Bond cleverly pinpoints an easy advantage, and plays it out. 

For instance, I love how he turns a bullet-maker’s gun around on him.  Bond then tells him to spill his guts or “forever hold his piece/peace,” meaning his genitalia…which the rifle is aimed at.   

Similarly, I like how Bond stuffs Goodnight into a hotel room closet and makes her listen there while he beds Andrea.  Such caddish, wicked, and rotten behavior...and yet this seems like the perfect Bond aesthetic for the 1970s.  This Bond is on the side of right, yet isn’t going to go out of his way to reach the moral high-ground.  He's sort of...sleazy.

The moment in which Bond head-butts an opponent during a bow of respect is classic in that regard.  Indeed, this is how I would have liked to see the less-than-physically-intimidating Moore interpret Bond in all his pictures.  As a guy who seeks the advantage, whether it is noble or not.

While we’re discussing performances, some mention should be made of Christopher Lee.  He’s a great actor, but he doesn’t seem to project much menace, or much character in Man with the Golden Gun.  

His Scaramanga is unfailingly polite and charming, the “anti-Bond”/Bond, but he’s sort of a big black hole at the center of the movie.  Some blame must go to the writers, I suspect.  Why is a laid-back, happy-go-lucky, well-paid assassin even bothering with the Solex when he is living in paradise?  

And why do his confrontations with Bond seem so casual and off-handed, if he is so obsessed with beating 007 in a duel?  

The screenplay never manages to bridge this contradiction.  Again, I love Lee.  He’s a great actor.  But his Scaramanga doesn’t rank as a great Bond villain, or even a particularly good one.

The Man with the Golden Gun possesses a negative reputation with Bond film lovers, in part, because it possesses few memorable stunts or set-pieces. 

The pre-title sequence -- usually a brilliant, self-contained action show-stopper -- is instead but a trip through Scaramanga’s hokey, low-scale fun-house/shooting gallery.  We get a very clichéd looking gangster exploring the attraction, and even making a joke about Al Capone.  One might wonder what all this is about until one remembers that The Man with the Golden Gun came out just two years after The Godfather’s blockbuster success.  

And if The Man with the Golden Gun can be said to concern anything, it is exploiting pop culture trends.

In terms of action, the film’s big stunt is a car jump featuring a rather unromantic automobile: an AMC Hornet.  While incredibly impressive, the stunt is over very quickly, and is accompanied by the ludicrous sound of a slide whistle, a “note” which totally undercuts any sense of shock and awe regarding the spectacular flip. 

Similarly, Scaramanga oversees a huge island fortress and a giant complex that operates an impressive solar laser. And he has precisely one henchman (other than Nick-Nack) to control all that machinery. 

Budget cuts?

The greatest problem with The Man with Golden Gun is not its largely forgettable action, however, it is the return of an unnecessary and distasteful character.  Sheriff  J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) is a Louisiana policeman, a raging racist and Southern by the grace of God. And he shows up in The Man with the Golden Gunshopping for a new with his wife while on vacation in Thailand.

So, first of all, why shop for a car while on your vacation in a foreign country? 

And secondly, who believes for one second that a bigoted, ignorant character like Pepper would leave the confines of ‘Murica and visit a country in the Far East? (Especially during the Vietnam War...).

It makes no sense, and Pepper’s presence in the film’s big action scene is a pandering move to bring the inexplicably popular Archie Bunker-type character back for an encore performance. 

Despite these myriad flaws, what The Man with the Golden Gun does possess in spades is a sense of timeliness.  The film’s McGuffin is the Solex Agitator, a device that can adapt the power of the sun, and the ongoing Energy Crisis is name-dropped in the film on at least one occasion.

The film’s action plays in a world that had just endured the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, with all its repercussions and frissons.  M (Bernard Lee) makes a speech about peak oil, and the need for an alternative energy source if the West is to survive.  In the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps this felt like a relic from a different time.  Today it seems relevant again.

The Solex Agitator thus represents one of the most focused attempts by the Bond franchise to be overtly topical in presentation, though The Living Daylights (1987) involves an Iran-Contra-type arms deal, and Quantum of Solace (2008) carries an environmental message. 

Although it is widely considered one of the worst films in the Bond franchise, The Man with the Golden Gun moves with relative agility and pace, and is more often than not entertaining.  

In fact, The Man with the Golden Gun is a whole lot more seamless than the bloated Diamonds are Forever.   This one is close in tone and shape to Moonraker (1979), perhaps, a Bond film that is sort of funny and sharp, even while at the same time it is hopelessly silly.

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