The Man with the Golden Gun marked the end of producer Harry Saltzman’s association with the Eon films franchise. He parted company with Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, due to a financial crisis, which almost bankrupted Eon productions. I think in the long term the series missed Saltzman’s creative influence, although Broccoli was to do a great job for years to come. In a way Golden gun is the end of a certain type of Bond picture. So although the later The Spy who Loved Me and Moonraker would hark back to the epic Bonds of the ‘60s, Golden gun feels like the end of the series as an original run with no sense of retrospect. Having said that, Roger Moore’s first two outings in the role were both keen to capitalise on then current trends. Just as Live and Let Die had blaxploitation leanings, so Golden Gun gives us Kung Fu with a Bond twist. This film would also be the last Bond feature to be directed by the ever-reliable Guy Hamilton. Despite Hamilton’s involvement, or perhaps because of it, the resulting film found a lukewarm reception at the American box office, ironically the market Broccoli and Saltzman were so keen to capture.
The Man with the Golden Gun is very consistent in style and content from start to finish, and is one of the more surreal Bonds, if only for its visual presentation. Much time is given over to scenes in the villain’s ‘House of mirrors’ training ground and parts of the Orient, where the film almost resembles a Bruce Lee martial arts film (I stress, almost). The British intelligence base, in a partly sunk shipwreck near Hong Kong (“The Queen Elizabeth”) is really odd. ‘M’ has temporary offices there, but everything is at a bizarre angle. The film is also consistently silly, and is ultimately one of the weaker Bond films. It’s also extremely tacky in places and it’s obvious the Bond franchise needed a serious kick up the backside (and not a Kung-Fu one). It got one in the end, but it took nearly three years to revitalise the series and come up with a genuinely good film. By 1974 there hadn’t been a really great Bond film for nearly five years, despite the high turn over. It’s often said you can tell how good a Bond film is by it’s theme song. So although John Barry is involved, high quality isn’t a foregone conclusion. Going off the quality of Lulu’s catchy but inane theme song, you’d be right in expecting a below par Bond film. Even Maurice Binder’s often remarkable title graphics are starting to loose their edge.
But a lot of people do like The Man with the Golden Gun. It is, as I said, a weaker entry to the series, yet is rescued from the bottom of the heap from having a great visual style and a lot of humour to it. But let’s be clear, even style isn’t something that The Man with the Golden Gun does particularly well. It often looks cheap and tacky, and Bond is almost made into a parody. Safari suits and cigars are bad enough, but Moore often plays Bond with an overly fatuous and smug air. I like Roger Moore, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not that great here and his opening briefing with ‘M’ is positively wooden. Saying that, he does utter one of his best lines. When aiming a rifle at a shopkeeper’s groin, he quips, “Speak now, or forever hold your piece!”
Christopher Lee is by far the best thing about The Man with the Golden Gun. He plays the role dead straight, no matter how much farce is going on around him. And farce is the order of the day, with redneck sheriffs, blonde agents locked in car boots, flying cars, fake nipples and Kung-Fu schoolgirls being served up for us. Its all pretty ridiculous, but the central idea is pure Ian Fleming. An assassin with a golden gun has all the preposterous glamour you need. His name is Francisco Scaramanga, and he sends ‘M’ a golden bullet with ‘007’ on it, or so we are led to think. Is Bond’s number up?
Lee is as captivating as ever and actually manages to upstage Moore, which isn’t too difficult. He plays Scaramanga as a gentleman killer, and not at all like the thug in Fleming’s novel. He’s cold and calculating, but has a lot of respect for Bond, who he considers to be the other side of the same coin. That makes him a fascinating character, a “dark” version of James Bond; an idea which works far better opposite Roger’s “lighter” Bond than it perhaps would have with Sean. His alleged sexual prowess and skill are signalled by his “superfluous papilla” (he has an extra nipple, a fact that Bond uses to his advantage. Scaramanga is notoriously elusive, but most people know of his unique feature. Cue Roger Moore wearing a fake nipple as he infiltrates the home of one of Scaramanga’s contacts).
Herve Villechaize (best known from TV’s Fantasy Island) plays Scaramanga’s diminutive sidekick NikNak, who goes through the film with the smug air of someone who’s going to get what he wants. When, at the end of the film, he doesn’t, he’s not happy and does the old “henchman seeks revenge Bond after his boss is dead” finale.
Also in the cast is super Swede Britt Ekland as Mary Goodnight, a character who held a torch for Bond through several of the novels. She would have made a good reoccurring Bond girl, and her performance in The Man with the Golden Gun is a nice foil for Moore’s Bond. She’s generally scatty and inept where Bond is cool and professional. She also brings out Bond’s sexist side. “Women!” he exclaims, before radioing Goodnight to find out what she’s done with the car keys. Her response explains that she’s trapped in the boot of Scaramanga’s car, and that she has her car keys with her, giving Roger Moore a chance to do the incredulous look he does so well. The other Bond girl is Maud Adams as Andrea, Scaramanga’s ill-fated girlfriend. She doesn’t make as much of an impression as Goodnight, and has the dubious distinction of being the last woman we saw 007 slapping about. Thankfully the sight of James Bond beating up a lass to get some information out of her are long gone, although I admit it was part of Fleming’s original characterisation. There are other ways of showing Bond’s ruthless side though, and besides, Moore doesn’t entirely suit the kind of violence that Connery and Lazenby were visually comfortable with. Also returning for a second appearance (and perhaps thankfully last) is Louisiana sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James). He’s a pretty offensive character, but at least he’s funny when he finally recognises Bond and gets whisked away in a showroom car. Although what on Earth he was doing looking at buying a car while on holiday with his wife is anybody’s guess.
The stunts are as good as ever and Golden gun features its one faultless element (other than Lee’s performance). The spiral car jump across a river is jaw droppingly fantastic, even if it does have a silly sound effect to go with it. Of course Bond would have been stuffed if he was a real secret agent as the car had to be perfectly balanced and fitted with a central steering wheel, as well as launched across a spiral jetty. Best not to think too hard about these things I suppose. But understand this- stuntman Bumps Williard did the stunt in ONE take! “He could have easily died”, Christopher Lee noted drolly, but the on screen effect is great.
There are other memorable scenes in Golden Gun such as Bond’s duel with Scaramanga, which starts on Scaramanga’s island beach. The tall, forested islands themselves, near Thailand, have become tourist attractions since the ‘70s, and are beautifully photographed.
Overall though, The Man with the Golden Gun isn’t all that golden, but it does occasionally glitter.