James Bond Overdose Part 9 – The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

This is one of those rare movies where you find yourself rooting for the villain.

Overall, the movie itself is kind of an inconsistent mess, BUT it does have its moments, including the oh-so-awesome Christopher Lee. Actually, unlike previous Bond movies, all the best stuff happens after Bond arrives at the main villain’s super secret facility, which means that you have to slog through lots of “meh” to get to the “oh yeah!” But the payoff is pretty good. I just wish there was more of it.

In this outing, James Bond (Roger Moore) is being targeted by the world’s most expensive and lethal assassin, Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), who is known for killing his targets with a single golden bullet (one million dollars a shot). M (Bernard Lee) tells Bond to take some time off, but Bond decides to track down Scaramanga (though next to nothing is known about him). His search leads him to the beautiful Andrea Anders (Maude Adams), Scaramanga’s kept woman, and the Thai industrialist Hai Fat (Richard Loo), a powerful man who has been known to employ Scaramanga to take out his enemies. Soon, Bond realizes that there’s more at stake than his own life. A powerful efficient solar cell called the “solex agitator” may be the key to solving the world’s energy crisis (this was the mid 70’s after all), but it appears to have fallen into unsavory hands and Scaramanga is involved. And so Bond must not only stay alive, but find the solex before it’s too late. *dramatic music*

It’s a muddy plot, but the matching of Bond and Scaramanga’s intellects is by far the most compelling part of the whole thing. Much like Grant in From Russia with Love, Scaramanga is sort of an “anti-Bond.” They’re both suave, charming, intelligent, and deadly. Scaramanga is perhaps a bit more flamboyant than the character of Grant was, but he’s a good match for Moore’s laid-back Bond. I really wish Lee was given more to do throughout the movie as a whole, since he’s basically just the final boss to be defeated, rather than a consistent villainous presence throughout.

Whereas there have been Bond villains in the past whom the audience liked because of their screen presence, this is one of the first times where the script actually tries to gain audience sympathy for the villain early on. The pre-credits sequence is one of the strongest in the series. Before we realize who he is, Scaramanga outwits an assassination attempt seemingly orchestrated by his diminutive butler Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize). It’s not until we see The Man with the Golden Gun shooting the fingers off of a life-sized likeness of Bond in his nightmarish funhouse that we realize that this man may actually be Bond’s match in terms of cleverness and skill. It’s a great introduction.

The opening credits themselves are actually pretty underwhelming. Lulu’s loud, energetic opening theme isn’t bad, but it’s a bit too obvious and clunky to be a really awesome song. It’s nice to hear John Barry’s orchestrations again, but the song itself seems sort of cheap and obvious. And Maurice Binder’s title animation is sort of generic, introducing a number of visual elements (like the carefully placed lily pads) that will show up again and again in future opening credits. It’s not the best, but I guess it does add some exposition (“He has a powerful weapon / He charges a million a shot”) that will be useful later on. But that’s about it.

The movie itself feels like a couple different movies all smashed together. The assassin plot is great, but then, halfway through the movie, it becomes a terrible faux martial arts film. And it seems like most of Asia is involved. Bond starts in Macau, then travels to Hong Kong, then to Thailand, where he’s assaulted by sumo wrestlers (…in Thailand…) and taken to a dojo where he has to escape from a horde of martial arts students with the help of his friend Hip’s two kickass nieces (who pwn everyone in spectacular fashion). It’s the most non of sequiturs, and it isn’t even necessary. One could easily delete the entire sequence and still have a coherent movie. It seems the filmmakers shoehorned it in to capitalize on the popularity of Enter the Dragon (1973), but it just doesn’t work. And that makes Bruce Lee sad.

It’s unfortunate, really, because the rest of the movie is pretty great. Maud Adams’ character is one of my favorites. She’s a fantastic actress who is able to transcend the Bond-Girl-Window-Dressing curse and actually give a compelling, multilayered performance. She reminds me of a film-noir character, the tragic lover of a high profile assassin who reaches out to the secret agent to sever her brutal attachment to the jealous man, only to succumb to his rage and lose all hope of a happy future free of his influence. Although she’s a kept woman much in the same way Solitaire from Live and Let Die was, she seems much more compelling. She’s strong, even though she’s miserable, and she actively tries to undo the web she’s become entangled in. I just love her. There’s nothing silly or shallow about her. She’s beautiful in a classy manner, and hints at a later time when Bond will feature more strong female characters. My only criticism, I suppose, would be that the real tragedy of her story is lost amidst the intense goofiness of the rest of the movie. But it’s all good. We will get to see Maud Adams again in 11 years when she returns as the enigmatic Octopussy!

Talking of Bond girls, this movie also features one of my least favorite Bond girls, Mary Goodnight. I have nothing against actress Britt Ekland, but her character is written to be so inept and silly and obvious, and irritating that she’s not even very good at being window dressing. She’s just grating. Even Bond seems to be annoyed by her most of the time. In the explosive finale, a passing cloud proves to be more useful than Goodnight when Bond is trapped by a laser. I get the feeling she exists just so Bond has someone to end up with at the end, even though it would have been infinitely better if some ridiculous plot device had Saida, the strange Lebanese bellydancer from early in the film, swoop in, push Goodnight over the side of the boat, and make some weird face while the end credits rolled.

It’s sad that this movie ended up being such a disaster (it did OK at the box office, but didn’t perform as strongly as the earlier entries), because it’s one of my favorite Christopher Lee roles (and that’s saying something, because this fellow has been a Sith lord, the vampire Dracula, Alice’s Jabberwocky, and the turncoat wizard Saruman). Plus, I heard recently that he records heavy metal albums. It’s no surprise that his performance is one of the redeeming factors of this movie. If one could just edit out the silly second act, the result would be too short to be a satisfying movie, but at least it would work better in the long run. But the movie’s not a total loss. Watch it for what it is, and appreciate Adams’ and Lee’s performances, and then move on to the next one.

Random Observations
-Why is Bond attacked in Beirut? Were they Scaramanga’s men trying to keep him from getting a hold of the golden bullet? The fight’s a good one, but I have no idea why it happens.
-Chew Mee, the naked girl in Hai Fat’s pool… I don’t even need to say anything else.
-M, Q, and Moneypenny all seem very angry in this one…
-Scaramanga strikes me as way too classy a gent to frequent the Bottoms Up Club
-Ugh, Sheriff J. W. Pepper is back… “You’re that secret agent! That English secret agent from England!”
-The flippy car jump is pretty cool, but I could have done without the cartoonish whoooooop! sound effect
-“His junk is moored around the corner.” *immature giggle*
-Do I even need to say that Bond ends the movie in a boat?

Join me next week! I’ll be taking a break from the James Bond Overdose series to do a post about director Wes Anderson whose movies everyone in the universe keep recommending to me. I’m pretty excited. James Bond Overdose will continue the following week after that with The Spy who Loved Me.

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