The Man With The Golden Gun is a thoroughly entertaining and even artistic entry in the franchise that harkens back to Goldfinger, almost perfectly balancing serious espionage elements and quirky Bond traits.
My Name is….
We begin as we always do, with James Bond himself. The producers apparently wanted to reverse direction a bit following Live and Let Die‘s portrayal of Bond as a playboy buffoon. This time, Roger Moore’s Bond is more akin to the Bond we saw in Goldfinger. He’s more on the ball, more conscious of each situation, more serious in his work, not so easily fooled, and he even smacks Maud Adams around a bit to get information. There is still a bit of regrettable goofiness, but it’s downplayed. Bond’s seductive powers are used to advance the plot – lifting the golden bullet from Saida’s belly button.
His charm, reputation, and sophistication allow him to get the drop on arms dealer Lazar. He even threatens to shoot the man if he doesn’t get the information he wants. Not only does he smack Ms. Anders and seduce her to serve the plot, he also engages in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse on Scaramanga’s island, drives like a banshee through the streets of Bangkok, pilots a plane, and engages in martial art fisticuffs. All in all, Mr. Moore comes off as a bit more rough-and-tumble and masculine than his first entry.
Scaramanga carries with him echoes of both Auric Goldfinger and Dr. No. Goldfinger, you’ll recall, was an unsophisticated, insecure, cheat who craved Bond’s acceptance. Dr. No was a refined man – a scientist who admired Bond and thought him an equal – equal enough to consider recruiting him for SPECTRE. Scaramanga shares traits of both of these men. The key with Christopher Lee’s masterful portrayal is that he believes that he is, deep inside, nothing more than a circus freak who happens to be a pretty good shot. He is a man with a third nipple – a body part more often associated with women, which was probably pretty humiliating. His only friend as a boy in his father’s circus was a trained elephant. Thus, his self-esteem has been tied entirely to his skill as a marksman. Like Dr. No, he went unappreciated by his employers (in this case, the KGB) and became independent. However, with no SPECTRE available to pick up stray disgruntled men of extraordinary talent, Scaramanga simply became a high-priced assassin.
It’s worth wondering that, once the Solex was in Hai-Fat’s possession, of Scaramanga had always intended to kill him and steal the device. Hai-Fat pompously reminds Scaramanga that he is just an employee, expensive though he is, and it made me wonder if Scaramanga really couldn’t care less about the Solex. We see it installed inside his solar powered island and there is an inference that he will sell it to the highest bidder. But to what end? More money? So he can do what? He already has a private island, any woman he wants, a midget that trained at the Cordon Bleu, and anything else he wants. Scaramanga’s ultimate motive appears to be set at the beginning of the film – to face down James Bond, the only man worthy of taking him on, mano-a-mano. But when it’s revealed that Anders (Maud Adams) sent 007 the golden bullet as a cry for rescue, we learn that Bond’s entrance into Scaramanga’s life was random. Even more telling, of course, is that Scaramanga actually feels the need to cheat to defeat Bond. He is therefore revealed to be almost as petty as Auric Goldfinger. Worse, he really doesn’t believe he can beat Bond in a fair fight.
At first I was puzzled as to why Scaramanga would select a midget as a henchman. But it makes sense – circus freaks really only trust their own kind. Nick Nack’s refined sensibilities, cooking prowess, and loyalty play into Scaramanga’s desire for stature. And of course, he’s a dwarf, so he will always appear superior when standing next to him. Nick Nack also plays right into the theme as the film’s resident trickster (see below). An interesting question concerning his true loyalty is raised, however. He tells the assassin in the pre-title sequence, and Bond later on, that if Scaramanga is killed that the island will become his. But if that were true, why hasn’t Nick Nack already murdered Scaramanga in his sleep, or by poisoning him? That may be why Nick Nack actually looks really distraught when he’s about to attack Bond and Goodnight during the climax. I think he really was loyal.
Britt Ekland’s Mary Goodnight provides an attractive diversion as the primary Bond girl. From snippets of dialogue, and even some understated acting from both Mr. Moore and Ms. Ekland, we know that these two not only shared some romantic evenings two years previously, but there may actually be some real feeling between them. Yes, Mr. Moore plays each scene with her as the playboy seducer, but I felt some subtext in there that he might actually care a bit about her….or at the very least genuinely enjoyed her company.
For my own taste, however, Maud Adams is positively fetching in this film. The scene where she emerges from the shower, wrapped in a towel, hair wet, with those eyes….wow! She is a wonderfully tragic figure for the film, and her desperation for rescue is heightened in the scene where Scaramanga all but forces her to perform fellatio on his gun. This is a woman trapped with a cruel man. Her demise seals her unfortunate role in the chain of events, while simultaneously providing another example of Scaramanga’s outstanding marksmanship. It also provides one of the film’s best scenes – in which the mixed martial arts fight plays as counterpoint to Scaramanga revealing himself to Bond. We suddenly realize that he is several steps ahead of our hero, and will remain so for much of the rest of the film.
Various Bond film rankings around the Internet place this film towards the bottom, which I find mystifying. The film is totally entertaining and engaging, with only one clumsy plot hole, and one section that feel flabby and unnecessary. Specifically, Hai-Fat doesn’t have Bond dispatched after he is caught on his estate. No, don’t kill him here and mess up the place, Mr. Fat says, send him over to the dojo where my martial arts students can whack away at him. Whatever.
The film begins with a great set-up – Scaramanga, Nick Nack, and Anders on the private island. Enter a gangster, presumably the same character Marc Lawrence played in Diamonds Are Forever, and the funhouse sequence (which also sets the film’s theme, see below). We are led to believe that Scaramanga is gunning for Bond, a theory given credence when the golden bullet etched with “007” arrives at MI-6. No reason is given, thus placing a mystery in the audience’s mind that will keep us guessing for quite some time. The energy expert Gibson is mentioned, just to establish him. The film travels nicely from tracking down the bullet into finding the Solex. It’s good structure. It’s also worth noting that Richard Maibaum returned to the series as a co-writer. He scripted all the Bond films through Timothy Dalton, except You Only Live Twice, Live and Let Die, and Moonraker, arguably three of the weakest entries, which should tell us something.
The film is actually rather light on action until the car chase through Bangkok, which may explain the unfortunate detour to the dojo. One can almost feel the film’s creators saying, “We need more action!”, and shoehorning that entire segment in, along with the needless motor boat “chase” through the canals. Fortunately, the car chase is exciting. For starters, it feels real. The cars really careen all over the road, and the lack of score for much of it heightens that reality. Of course, we are treated to the film’s signature stunt, the famous Astro Spiral. Trivia nerds should listen to the extensive commentary on the DVD concerning the stunt’s execution. What a shame the moment is nearly ruined by the addition of a silly slidewhistle to the soundtrack.
It’s been a revelation to discover that virtually all the Bond films have had strong thematic elements running through them – no doubt the result of Mr. Maibaum’s contributions. This time around we might think of the theme as circus-related, specifically, things like mirrors, funhouses, tricks and tricksters. Mirrors play a big role in the funhouse itself, of course. However, note that Hai-Fat’s safe was hidden behind a mirror, and Anders’ image appears in a circular mirror in the bathroom. Nick Nack appears from behind a ceiling mirror on the junk.
Variations of funhouses appear throughout the film, and not just on Scaramanga’s island. MI-6’s local HQ is brilliantly set inside the partially-capsized boat in Macau harbor. With it’s off-kilter perspective and strange angles, it is reminiscent of Scaramanga’s funhouse – a mirror image, if you will. All of this design is influenced by German Expressionism, which heavily influenced the design of Dr. No.
We literally see two nudie clubs, funhouses of another kind. The garage that Scaramanga’s car enters then becomes a funhouse of its own – as the car is transformed into a plane. Hai-Fat’s estate becomes a funhouse as Bond enters at night through seemingly innocuous statues, until three of them actually move! It’s Nick Nack and two Sumo wrestlers! Then a pleasant respite in the local dojo suddenly turns deadly as Bond is transformed from honored guest into punching bag.
Nick Nack fulfills the role of trickster. He is constantly used for misdirection. He hires the initial assassin, only to lure him into the deadly funhouse. He appears as an image on a television in a shop, then appears in person next to Bond….before stealing the Solex from the dead Gibson. Nick Nack lures Goodnight to the car where she is then trapped.
And tricks? Oh, my. Everywhere! Anders appears to be sitting watching the boxing match, but she is actually dead. The golden bullet was not meant as a challenge to Bond, but a cry for help. Bond attempts to impersonate Scaramanga but Hai-Fat already knows he isn’t who he says he is. We get a car doing a loop-de-loop, another car transforming into an airplane, Loo tricks Bond into thinking he is police when he is actually an agent, and two petite girls turn out to be martial arts experts.
Particularly noteworthy is the filmmakers use of abstract space, a first for the Bond films. Abstract space is often used to mirror a character’s disorientation, and to put the audience in the same position. The geography of the funhouse is not at all clear to us, and when Bond climbs underneath it, note how the framing makes it difficult to tell which way is literally up. All the strange angles in the funhouse and the ship contribute to these moments, as well. Keep an eye out if you watch the film again for many more of these moments.
I don’t want to leave without mentioning three other items. First, John Barry was apparently not happy with his score, saying he never really figured it out. I disagree. It’s a fun score, with a rousing main theme that is at times both playful and dangerous, and Barry often counterpoints it with the Bond theme.
The moment we enter Scaramanga’s house the first time, I smugly predicted the sets were done by Ken Adam. Wrong! Peter Murton did the production design, but it was not a shock to discover that he came up through Adam’s art department. May I again point out the use of circular ceilings in the villain’s lair – a constant throughout the Bond films thus far?
Finally, this begins the real trend of Bond films spanning the globe with exotic locations. Yes, Japan was nice in You Only Live Twice, but I really felt like I got to know Hong Kong, Macau, and Bangkok.
James Bond will return in “The Spy Who Loved Me”.