Wednesday, November 29, 2017

'The Man With The Golden Gun', an Ignored Masterpiece

Bond duels the villain Scaramanga on his "fun house", a maze full of video screens, images and sound effects  meant to confuse every possible challenger.

The Man With The Golden Gun is an ignored masterpiece. That may sound a rather strong assessment for a film that is troughly hated by the worldwide community, accused of its blandness and being the epitome of the funny, self-parodic James Bond films written by Tom Mankiewicz since 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. But depending on what side you look at it, the movie can be pure unadultered enjoyment.

When you read books like Casino Royale or On Her Majesty's Secret Service you will know that James Bond as portrayed by the late Roger Moore was not an accurate cinematic version of Fleming's Bond. Nor was the 1974 film, which instead of having 007 sent to kill Paco "Pistolas" Scaramanga, a sort of far-west outlaw who brutally kills British agents or any oposition with his golden Colt .45, has Bond being the target of Francisco Scaramanga, a debonair contract killer who mounts a golden gun from his personal golden jewlery.

Movie poster artwork for The Man With The
Golden Gun
, designed by Robert McGinnis
Nevertheless, it is necessary to admit that due to many factors the cinematic Bond was different from the literary Bond from the beginning, and producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli knew they had to lighten up a bit Fleming's dramatic hero into a man of this world. "This world" refers, precisely, to each year of the five decades where 007 was relevant including the present day, from the Space Race sensation of the late 1960s (see Dr. No and You Only Live Twice) to the globalization in the 1990s (see GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies) and heroes with a past and emotional conflicts from the 2010s (see Skyfall and SPECTRE).

Directed by Guy Hamilton, The Man With The Golden Gun was released in December 1974 and the film itself serves as a testimony to the era: from the music to the sets, the costumes and the subplot that touches the early 1970s energy crisis and the emergence of martial artists like Bruce Lee. That is, perhaps, what makes it beautiful in its own way.

As he showed in previous Bond adventures like Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, Hamilton makes good use of the thechnical aspects of the story and has a straightforward way of presenting the facts, with a simple storyline that leaves more space to the technical aspects such as the action sequences and the film visuals (mainly the cinematography, the music and the set design).

The films opens, much like in the previous 007 adventure Live And Let Die, ignoring Bond and showing what the villains do. In this case, we see a day in the life of Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), sunbathing with his lover Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) on the beach of his private island near Phuket, Thailand. A contract killer arrives to put an end to Scaramanga's life. He laughs, thinking it will be an easy job. But soon enough, he finds himself inside Scaramanga's fun house: a labyrinth filled with diversion stategies (loud music, false paths, mannequins of shooting cowboys) made to make the challengers lose most of his ammunition. Finding his precious Golden Gun exhibited among the maze, Scaramanga shoots his rival right between the eyes. The funniest part here is that the killer was hired by none other than Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize), Scaramanga's servant, in a way to train his boss with surprising challenges: the same training method Kato had with Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. 

Fantastic shot of the film by cinematographers Ted Moore and Oswald Morris.
Equally fantastic set design by Peter Murton.

After the colorful main titles by Maurice Binder, playing over the catching title song by Scottish singer Lulu, Roger Moore makes his second appaerance as James Bond onscreen and reports for duty to his boss M (Bernard Lee). This time, tough, he isn't briefed about a mission. He is offered a sabbatical year or the resignation. The reason: he has been marked for death by Scaramanga - whom nobody knows where he is or how he looks like (except we, the audience, who were offered a glimpse of his million dollar hits). "The Man With The Golden Gun" has been previously responsible for the death of agent 002 in Beirut, and now he seems to have put his eye on 007.

In recent Bond films, namely Licence To Kill (1989), Die Another Day (2002), Quantum of Solace (2008) and SPECTRE (2015), we see 007 picking his own mission outside MI6. The Man With The Golden Gun could be the first film in the series where Bond isn't formally assigned to a mission and M wants him out of the picture to protect him of Scaramanga. Thus, Bond goes solo following a series of clues from Lebanon to Macau, from Hong Kong to Thailand, to find Scaramanga first. It happens in a very subtle way and Bond isn't exactly going rogue, but he isn't formally assigned to kill his nemesis.

Christopher Lee as Francisco Scaramanga,
aka "The Man With the Golden Gun".
Another clever resort from the script is that for the first time in the series 007 is described as an assassin. Right before the duel à la mort between Bond and Scaramanga, the latter gloats about his profession and matches himself to the secret agent. "Come, come, Mr. Bond... you enjoy killing as much as I do," he happily says. "When I kill it's under specific orders of my government, and those I kill are themselves killers", Bond replies.

In many interviews, Christopher Lee saw his character as "the dark side of Bond", and this shows off in the aforementioned exchange: Scaramanga is an assassin and so is Bond, but the latter firmily establishes he's on the side of good. Both Moore and Lee have an unique chemistry and the contrasts between the protagonist and the antagonist are truly believable. Lee, distant cousin of Ian Fleming, didn't portray Scaramanga as the outlaw described by Fleming and the movie is much less dramatic in comparison. 1989's Licence To Kill would be even closer to Ian Fleming's The Man With The Golden Gun in concept as Edward Biddulph brilliantly described on his blog James Bond Memes.

Cinematographers Ted Moore and Oswald Morris used an eye popping palette of purple, red, yellow and green for most of the scenes, namely those taking place in Scaramanga's fun house. The Man With The Golden Gun is probably one of the most visually impacting films of the series, where reds look redder, greens look greener and blue looks bluer. Even the iconic gunbarrel sequence, for unknown reasons, got the opening dots in a light purple hue, something the Lowry team "corrected" in their DVD and BluRay transfer restorations for the film. Production designer Peter Murton, who previously worked as an art director on Goldfinger and Thunderball, was in charge of set designs that maybe weren't as extravagant as Ken Adam's pieces but do deserve some credit: besides the imaginative fun house of the villain, there is also the British Secret Service hideout rebuilt inside the sinking wreckage of the Queen Elizabeth transatlantic (pure Moore-Bond era humour!)

After the relevance of martial arts in 1970s flicks,
Bond (unwantedly) visits a karate school.
John Barry returned to compose a James Bond film after his abscence from Live And Let Die, where George Martin took up the task. The score for The Man With The Golden Gun has been criticized even by Barry himself. Nevertheless, the sound of the film is very appealing with the times and with the tone set for the story. Lulu's title song breaks with the mould and goes for a tacky tune describing qualities of the villain. Instrumental versions of this theme song are repeated very often in the score, either during the action sequences or the romantic moments between Bond and his female counterpart Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland). It even features as source music inside Scaramanga's fun house, both in a piano and trumpet jazzy version.

The music is skilfully used as Bond and his uninvited guest Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) are chasing Scaramanga and Nick Nack through the streets of Bangkok, both "teams" driving AMC cars. As Scaramanga hides his car inside a garage and turns his vehicle into a flying car, a soft version of the theme song is heard, while we get a frenetic version of the James Bond Theme as 007 and the policeman are on hot pursuit (listen to track six of the soundtrack, "Let's Go Get Them"). Given that Pepper has first appeared in the previous film, Barry allows himself to add some little irony and include a few bars of George Martin's Live And Let Die theme song.

Other suites of the album are comprised of guitars and wind instruments, with some percussion rythms too. Much like in Diamonds Are Forever, the soundtrack of The Man With The Golden Gun feels vibrant, sexy and lush.

Part of the score is also the much criticized "whistle" sound effect as Bond and Pepper's AMC Matador makes a 360 degree spin as they jump over a broken bridge. But, seriously, would that sequence be any better without this (in)famous sound effect? It added emphasis and substance to one of the most remembered and meticulosly planned stunts in the motion picture history.

Times change and James Bond is now, with Daniel Craig, closer to what Fleming had in mind: a blunt instrument. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that and Craig is the right Bond for today's world. Nevertheless, as Bond is a character of all time, Roger Moore was Bond for yesterday's world, and the world of the 1970s was much more visually flamboyant than today's.

Forty-three years after its release, the Bond film that put to an end the society between Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli is sadly overlooked when compared to other 007 flicks. But, seriously, think of The Man With The Golden Gun as a testimony of the vibrant early 1970s and you'll love it. Immerse yourself in John Barry's music, fix your eyes on the exciting cinematography, take an invite to Scaramanga's fun house, envy Roger Moore's womanizing with a blonde and a brunette in the same hotel room for the sake of Queen and Country and -seriously- you'll love it.

Bottoms up!

Nicolás Suszczyk


  1. Fully agree with everything you've said. I prefer 1970's Bond movies to today's. 'TMWTGG' was fun and had a great villain, unlike the more recent 'SPECTRE'.

  2. I entirely agree with you.

    However, one correction - Bond and Pepper chased Scaramanga's Matador in an AMC Hornet.