Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

James Bond is one of the most enduring characters in cinema and undoubtedly one aspect of the longevity is the producer’s willingness and ability to keep the films relevant to contemporary audiences and tastes. The Man with the Golden Gun is an example of this, reflecting the tastes and attitudes of the target audience and popular culture of the time. Along the way however it needlessly complicates the story, wastes potentially one of the greatest Bond villains of all time, and relies too much on cringe-worthy comedy and weak supporting characters.

The hunter has become the hunted as Bond becomes the target of Scaramanga, a mysterious assassin, who charges one million dollars per job and always uses gold bullets on his targets. Scaramanga is also linked to the death of a scientist working on the "Solex Agitator", a powerful solar cell. How is this linked to the price on Bond's head – and will 007 live long enough find out?

Although the 70s Bond films were still using the original novels as source material, this was increasingly confined to the title, and basic plot, and The Man with the Golden Gun is no exception.  Producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman moved the action from the Jamaican setting of the book to the Far East, which, as Enter the Dragon had been released the previous year, allows the film to incorporate elements from the Kung Fu movies which were all the rage. This was neither the first or last time this sort of cash in would happen as Live and Let Die and Moonraker came out within a short time of Shaft and Star Wars respectively, and incorporated many of the tropes of those films as well as playing to the public hunger for them.  However in The Man with the Golden Gun, rather than incorporated, these elements feel clumsily shoehorned in, leading to scenes that are baffling and insulting to the intelligence (why does Hip, Bond's man in Hong Kong, bring his teenage nieces on a mission? So they can beat up bad guys. Because they're Kung Fu experts).

The race and gender depictions are very much also of the time, with the Asians presented as both mysterious and exotic, or simply there to serve the British.  Women come off just as badly, although this is not unusual for Bond films. They range from the helpless and doomed Andrea (played by Maud Adams), who, in a jarring break from Moore's wisecracking smoothie portrayal, gets several smacks round the face from Bond as he tries to get information from her. At the other end of the spectrum we have helpless and stupid in the form of fellow British agent Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), a character who might have worked as a comedy relief dizzy blonde, but here is someone so stupid, incompetent and grating, that it actually insults the intelligence of the audience.

The goofy broad humour reaches a low point with the character of Sheriff J.W. Pepper, the two dimensional Southern Sheriff who had previously appeared in Live and Let Die. Bizarrely, and completely improbably (even in the improbable world of James Bond films) he is on holiday in Thailand, sat in a car at a showroom at precisely the moment Bond requisitions a vehicle for a chase. To make us believe that an overtly racist character like Pepper would holiday in Thailand is too much, never mind the idea that he would visit a car dealer at the same time

This leads to the most famous scene in the film, the corkscrew car bridge jump, and spectacular though this is, it, like the Sheriff, the Kung Fighting and the Solex Agitator, it adds nothing to the story telling and could have been left out without compromising the plot, or could have been inserted just as arbitrarily into any other film.

This is the crux of the problem with The Man with the Golden Gun, the simple initial premise of two men hunting each other needlessly complicated by these elements. The best Bond films, such as From Russia with Love take a simple plot with clear goals and make everything that happens, a clear and logical part of that. A duel between Bond and a worthy adversary should have been such a premise, and even if this takes in multiple locations and characters, they can all serve this. Sadly and unforgivably, the filmmakers (given this is a franchise, it is perhaps not always clear how much of the final product is down to producers, writers or directors) waste what could have been one of the greatest and most unique Bond villains of all time.

Christopher Lee rose to fame playing Dracula as a suave, charismatic, but ruthless and overtly sexual predator, qualities he brings to Scaramanga and, arguably, qualities that somewhat define the character of Bond. Certainly he is every bit as suave, charming, dangerous as Bond, almost like a mirror image of him, and while he does have a lair, gadgets and, in Nick Nack, played by Herve Villechaize, a sidekick (the 6ft 5 Lee  and Villechaize make a great odd couple, like Kramer and Mickey Abbott in Seinfeld), his focus on assassination and personal enrichment put him in a different league to Blofeld and SPECTRE.