WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Bond – James Bond – is taken off his assignment searching for a solar energy genius because M has received a golden bullet bearing 007’s number, a calling card from expert but expensive assassin Francisco Scaramanga. But Bond is not the sort to be threatened and goes in search of his enemy, finding in his round-the-world pursuit that the threat is not as arbitrary as his boss may have thought.
While Roger Moore ended his Bond tenure an aging if knowing (see The Cannonball Run) parody of the heroic spy, more likely to rustle up a meal than rough up the bad guys (see A View to a Kill), it wasn’t always like that. Moore’s first adventure, the spooky Live and Let Die, was swiftly followed up by The Man with the Golden Gun, Guy Hamilton’s third consecutive Bond movie and one which – for good and bad – contains everything you’d expect from Bond at the same time as reflecting trends in 1970s cinema.
Well-heeled, three-nippled assassin Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee, the titular ‘Man’) lives in secluded luxury on an island hideaway, honing his skills on those who would kill him with the help of a nightmareish shooting range and his diminutive and deceptively helpful butler Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize). Scaramanga’s admiration for James Bond stretches to keeping a dummy of the secret agent in pride of place in his hall of mirrors; and yet a golden bullet sent to MI6 suggests to ‘M’ (Bernard Lee) that 007 is Scaramanga’s next target, a reasonable assumption since a golden bullet did for poor old 002. M tries to talk Bond into calling off his investigation of a missing scientist called Gibson, who potentially carries the answer to the energy crisis in a device called the solex agitator; but unlike other activities, Bond doesn’t take the threat lying down and vows to find Scaramanga, beginning with 002’s squeeze in Beirut and a gunmaker in Macau. In Hong Kong Bond tracks down Scaramanga’s girlfriend Andrea Anders (Maud Adams), and though she initially has to have information forced from her, she becomes more compliant and reveals that she sent the bullet in an attempt to get Bond to halt the cruel assassin. As Bond gets closer to Scaramanga and the power behind him, businessman Hai Fat (Richard Loo), he needs the assistance of local Lieutenant Hip (Soon-Tek Oh) and holidaymaking sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) to get out of close scrapes. Meanwhile, liaison Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) proves more useful at getting herself into scrapes than helping Bond out of them, although when she finds herself in the boot of Scaramanga’s car/plane she does lead 007 straight to his lair and the full revelation of his plans.
The relationship between Scaramanga and Bond – and necessarily, therefore, the performances of Lee and Moore – is/are key to why The Man with the Golden Gun stays watchable throughout. In Scaramanga’s view he and Bond are guns for hire, cut from the same cloth, and the pre-credits sequence’s focus on the villain demonstrates the importance of Scaramanga as an ‘Anti-Bond.’ More than any of 007’s other encounters, The Man with the Golden Gun contains the tension of a one-on-one confrontation; Lee’s smooth portrayal truly convinces us that he is Bond’s equal, although his immorality is contrasted with Bond’s amorality. I say ‘amorality’ because unlike later, cuddlier adventures, Moore’s spy is a rough-edged action man not averse to using violence on women to get what he wants (the film’s misogyny wouldn’t play well at all these days, but was all part of the ‘exciting’ violence of seventies film-making). With Moore and Lee having a ball, Villechaize providing dry humour and Maud Adams making for a feisty and brave Bond ‘girl’, the film for the most part drives on forcefully, with incidental pleasures such as the wonderful design of MI6’s wonky HQ in the wreck of the Queen Elizabeth and the famous corkscrew car jump coming as a welcome bonus. Also, The Man with the Golden Gun comes at a felicitous point where the Bond tropes – M, Q, Moneypenny – are familiar and touched on but not in a ridiculous or self-conscious way (the limit of Q’s gadgets is a homing device).
There are a few significant negatives, however. The plot involving the ‘agitator’ is so redundant that the device may as well have been called the ‘MacGuffinator’, and its use in Scaramanga’s lair throws up more questions than answers (How can the facility ‘maintain absolute zero’, especially when the whole island is run by 2 and a half people?); the sequence in Hai Fat’s ‘school’ is a tiresome nod to the contemporary popularity of martial arts films and its resolution via two schoolgirls is daft; the transplantation of Pepper from Live and Let Die is awkward and his crass racism (pointyheads!) dates the film terribly; the big moment of the car stunt is almost ruined by the pathetic accompaniment of a swanee whistle; and while we’re talking about music, Lulu’s theme song is noisy and unmemorable. Also, the opening of the film signposts rather too strongly how it’s going to end. But all of this is as nothing compared to Britt Ekland’s woeful Mary Goodnight. Ekland is a terrible actress and her character is irritatingly stupid, getting herself captured unnecessarily and hampering Bond at every subsequent opportunity. Her silly bikini-clad havoc-making towards the end shows a film quickly running out of ideas, and the coda with Nick Nack makes for painful comedy. And whilst you’re wincing at the final innuendoes, ask yourself this: how the hell does M know the phone number of Scaramanga’s boat?
Though he never brought Sean Connery’s physicality to the role, The Man with the Golden Gun at least shows that Roger Moore could do Bond as more than simply a bulletproof charmer, perhaps leaning on the impressive presence of Lee to up his own game. Both Bond and the villain are great here: it’s what goes on around them that lets the movie down.