BOND, JAMES BOND: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Directed by Guy Hamilton
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz
Release Date: 20th December 1974 (U.K and U.S)

The ninth entry in Eon’s Bond series, The Man with the Golden Gun would mark the first time since Thunderball that a Bond movie had come out within a year of the previous film. While it was an eighteen month gap, Roger Moore’s second time as 007 would follow in 1974, but it would mark the end of an era for the series since it would be the last to be co-produced by Harry Saltzman.

When it comes to the history of the franchise, it does sometimes feel as if Saltzman has become something of a footnote, not least because the baton would not only be carried by Cubby Broccoli from 1977 onwards, but then passed on to his own children, making the series something of a family run operation.

You cannot underestimate the importance of Saltzman to the equation when it comes to the story of Bond becoming a vital and important part of the landscape of mainstream cinema, and while it’s Albert R. Broccoli’s name that still appears at the start of every Bond film even today, Saltzman’s business dealings and financial decisions would mean that after the release of The Man With the Golden Gun, he would have no more involvement in the series that he had helped start and turn into a cinematic phenomenon, and one that was as pivotal and important to 60s pop culture as The Beatles.

With Live and Let Die having been a huge success and the highest grossing film of the series up to that point (although adjusted for inflation, Thunderball was still king of the castle), there was an attempt to strike while the iron was still hot. A large majority of the creative team from the last two movies were retained, with Guy Hamilton stepping into his third consecutive Bond film in a row, and his fourth overall, with Tom Mankiewicz once again on script writing duties, although Richard Maibaum would return to the scripting process throughout production.

As a result, there is a feeling of a film going by the numbers here. It’s very easy to have nostalgic affection for the film. On a personal note, I do seem to recall this being one of the very first films of the series I ever saw and I do have a level of affection for it, but it’s also hard to ignore just how fatigued everything is here.

Live and Let Die might be a film with its own set of problems, but being the first film to feature Roger Moore as 007 and by bringing to the screen one of Fleming’s most controversial novels, not to mention having one hell of a theme song courtesy of Paul McCartney and Wings, it was a film with considerable drive, as well as finding new ways to explore the Bond voice with Moore in the role.

Admittedly some areas of the film have not aged well, as Moore’s more sexually manipulative antics still felt like a carry-over from the Connery era, not to mention the racial politics going on over its runtime, but at least there was an attempt at doing something different for the series. Everything about The Man with the Golden Gun feels by the numbers.

Upon turning down Thunderball after directing Goldfinger, Guy Hamilton remarked that directing the third 007 adventure had left him somewhat drained of ideas and given that this was his fourth film overall and third in a row having helmed all the Bond films of the 70s so far, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the director might have been on autopilot form here.

The fact that Mankiewicz was then having to have his work be re-written by returning frequent Bond writer Richard Maibaum said a lot also. Even John Barry’s music, although a decent enough score, cannot compete with the brilliance of his work from the 60s and the work he was going to do beyond here, and while the theme song is performed with gusto by Lulu, superb lyricist Don Black’s words feel more like lazy plot exposition as opposed to actual song lyrics (‘Who shall he bang? We shall see.’)

Bond and Scaramanga’s final confrontation parlays into the film’s central idea of a villain who envisions himself as a Bond-style character.

Then there’s Roger Moore’s performance, or at the very least the way Bond is written. Roger Moore was suave, charming, and very, very funny, and his tenure in the role would become popular with a generation who became very devoted to his performance and films.

The problem here is that the more cynical, slightly more manipulative and chauvinistic (although, since this is Bond, the latter will always be there as part of his character) elements of his performance from Live and Let Die are substantially heightened and, to quote Lewis Gilbert who would helm the next two films of the series and lay the foundations for the considerably more lighter tone of Moore and his films in a more concrete way, it feels as if they were still writing for Sean Connery.

For anyone who has a soft spot for Octopussy (and it may not be cool to say it, but I rather do) the image of Roger Moore beating the hell out of Maud Adams after having leered at her while showering feels wrong. Connery’s Bond was frequently being violent or coercing his female leads into sexual encounters, but Roger Moore’s Bond had that touch of gentlemanly English adventurer about him and to see him doling out violence to one of the female leads, and one he would have genuinely romantic chemistry with when the series recast her in a different role in a later film, cannot help but leave a nasty taste.

Moore himself was on the record as being somewhat uncomfortable with the scene, and would be again during attempts to make the character a little harder edged in some of the films of the 1980s, most notably For Your Eyes Only which would see Moore’s Bond branch into Fleming-style brutality during one of that film’s most effective scenes.

Watching him twist Maud Adams’ arm and then threaten to break her neck is one of the most horrifying scenes in the film, and you can sense it playing against Moore’s jovial nature. Certainly his time in the role still invites debate to this day, with many who go along with his more light hearted portrayal, or those who feel it goes against the character and any sense of verisimilitude that the series was trying to gain (Richard Maibaum is frequently on record as having issues with the more tongue-in-cheek nature of the actor’s tenure in the role).

That little twinkle in his eye is still there, but it’s frequently suppressed by a script that still has the spectre (pardon the pun) of Connery’s performance around it. The first 007 was unafraid to bring an element of a colder style of bastard to the character, hence many scenes in his film that make one wince in 2020, and while his first two films seem to acknowledge that he is cutting a more light hearted figure, you can sense everyone wanting to still make a film with a Connery-style Bond who can turn nasty with the flick of a switch.

On top of beating up Andrea Anders, he also displays frequently misogynistic behaviour towards Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), pushes a child from a boat into a dirty river after said child helps him escape from some villains, and displays a cocky attitude that never really feels as charming or as lovable as we’d get from the next film onwards.

Although let’s be clear, there are still moments in The Spy Who Loved Me that hint at that colder character than we maybe give credit for, but it’s in the comedy and the humour that the next film gets its balance right that The Man with the Golden Gun struggles with.

For all the film’s many issues, the one thing that cannot be argued with it is that it has one of the very best villains from the series, played to perfection by the late, great Christopher Lee.

You can see how director Lewis Gilbert would channel that charm into something more likeable when he’d return to the franchise, and even give Moore a genuinely dramatic, Fleming-esque moment before the start of the next film’s final third, but there is a genuine nasty streak here that is hardwired into the comedy, the drama and the plotting, and frequently to Bond’s behaviour in nearly every other scene that feels like it’s very much going against the style of performance and character Moore would perfect over the duration of his time in the role.

The film once again takes the bare bones of Fleming’s last full-length novel, strips it for parts and then does its own thing with it. The novel was a follow up to the narrative of Fleming’s You Only Live Twice and opened with an amnesiac Bond trying to kill M. Upon rehabilitation, Bond is then assigned to track down and kill notorious assassin Scaramanga.  The film adaptation throws in a plotline involving the then hot topic of the energy crisis, a solex agitator, a missing scientist, a subterfuge by Anders to get Bond involved in the plot and a giant laser fuelled by the sun.

The film even brings back Clifton James from the previous film as JW Pepper because the character was so popular in the last movie, although this film proves you can have too much of a good thing, although only if you liked the character (he was too much of a typically 70s racist sheriff that was showing up in so many comedic action movies of the period).

This being a Guy Hamilton-directed Bond film from the 70s, it means we get a plethora of vehicular chase sequences, with cars in one scene and boats in another, very few of which can compete with previous set pieces. The boat chase here doesn’t compare to the brilliant choreography and expansive staging from Live and Let Die, and while the car chase here culminates with one of the best and most famous stunts from the entire franchise, it’s impact is considerably diluted by the use of a slide whistle on the soundtrack.

On top of all that, the film also feels somewhat cheap. The Bond series was always famous for putting its budget on the screen. Even when the budgets were low as when they started out on Dr. No, the films had a sheen and a gloss to them that made one feel as if they were big budget affairs, but you can tell that either they don’t have as much money to play with here, or having to jump in right after Live and Let Die is having them cut corners, or not try as hard.

A fight sequence in Beirut near the start of the film feels more like something out of Moore’s time as Simon Templar; there is no establishing shot, when the film ventures outside there’s really nothing to make it feel like anything other than the backlot of Pinewood, and there was also the notorious goof of the production crew being reflected in the mirror for one shot during the punch-up. It’s not without any semblance of entertainment; Barry’s hyperactive music makes it entertaining, and the reminiscence to The Saint makes it strangely fun, but it just adds to the somewhat lackadaisical nature of the film, and once the scene is over,  you can’t help but feel the ITC logo is going to appear.

The final act of the film has more of this type of issue when Bond shows up on Scaramanga’s island for the film’s final confrontation, an island that comes complete with the type of control centre the likes of which is the interior decoration of choice for a Bond villain. Except there is only one henchman working there. It’s a joy to watch the series subvert expectations when it can, especially with a franchise that has famous tropes and clichés such as this one does, but this isn’t the series trying something new or different, it genuinely looks as if the film cannot afford to have hundreds of extras running around Peter Murton’s set because of budgetary restrictions, and to make things worse, the lone henchman then tries to make sexual overtures to Mary Goodnight and the whole thing becomes queasy and uncomfortable and just reiterates how the women are being viewed in the film.

Roger Moore’s Bond, accompanied by Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) and Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), both of whom would be on the receiving end of some harsh treatment from an uncharacteristically nasty portrayal from Roger Moore.

The series has frequently been called out for issues of consent and sexism, rightly so, but the treatment of the female characters here are the type of things that one can see why some take offence with the franchise; Andrea Anders is a tragic character whose only function in the story is to be beaten by Bond, used as a sex slave by Scaramanga, then to use her sexuality to convince Bond to help her, only to then get killed because she “can’t serve two masters.”.

Then there’s Goodnight who is the type of airhead character who would surely fall into the realm of being labelled a bimbo, who is frequently talked down to by Bond, discarded mid-seduction for Anders and made to hide in a wardrobe, and who is then forced in the final act to pretty much play out the rest of the film wearing swimwear.

On the plus side, Christopher Lee is wonderful as Scaramanga, playing the role with relish and wit. Here is a villain that elevates the film somewhat with a genuine mirror image to Bond himself. Mankiewicz is on the record as saying that he would have loved Jack Palance to have played the role, and you can see the influence of American westerns on the final confrontation, but it’s hard to see how it could have been anyone other than Lee. A stalwart of British genre cinema, not to mention one of the most iconic and famous screen versions of Dracula, Lee had an ability to combine charm with villainy in a way most actors could only dream off and here he has the ability to turn on the charm but also never shy away from the darker aspects of the character.

His use of a gun on Andrea after having killed somewhat is disturbingly sexual, and genuinely feels like a nod to the type of psychotic villainy and portrayal that Fleming would have revelled in. It’s a horrible scene to watch, but it also feels like it’s meant to be. The way in which Adams and Lee plays the scene tell us as much, and hints at how effective the film might have been if it had a better command of tone and style.

When the film premiered in Christmas of 1974, it did so to less than stellar box office and it looked to be that Bond had finally met his match in box office apathy.  Its $97 million box office take was still profitable for sure, but it was a remarkable step down after the high of Live and Let Die. Coupled with the legalities that were about to keep the series off the cinema screens for the next three years, there was a possibility at the time that the series had ran its course.

That wasn’t to be the case, however. It might have ended up being the longest break between 007 instalments up to that point, but when the series did return, it would do so triumphantly and brilliantly with one of the most entertaining films of the entire series, a greatest hits package that literally sang to us that nobody could do it better.

Bond, James Bond will return with…The Spy Who Loved Me.

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