Because if I had been forced to do this without a refresher, I would have sworn on my mother's grave (as yet unused) that there was no way that I could ever say that The Man with The Golden Gun was better the Live And Let Die. No way.
And yet here we are. Maybe my memory was faulty. Maybe LALD has aged so poorly it sunk below MWGG. Or maybe my tastes have just changed.
That's not to say, of course, that MWGG is actually one of the better Bond movies. It's not. But in re-watching it in such close proximity to the others, well, it was a lot better than I remembered it being. Which isn't necessarily saying too much, but still.
Ian Fleming didn't do them any favors with the novel. It was the last Bond novel he wrote, and was a very odd duck. It took place after the You Only Live Twice novel, which ended with Bond amnesiac and wandering around western Asia. As MWGG opens, Bond has suddenly returned after a year of being missing and presumed dead. It turns out the KGB found him, brainwashed him, and sent him back home to assassinate M (he tries, but fortunately he fails).
After MI-6 "unbrainwashes" him, M decides there's only one thing to do...send him on an impossible suicide mission, whether either he succeeds and proves himself all healed, or dies a hero's death. That mission: to kill Francisco "Pistols" Scaramanga, a hitman who works for the Soviets (as well as independent jobs) who has become quite the thorn in the CIA & MI-6's sides. Bond heads to Jamaica under the cover name of Mark Hazard (really!!), pals it up with Scaramanga, and spends the next 120 pages in an unnecessary cat and mouse game before getting around to killing "Pistols." Bond is restored to the good graces of MI-6, the Queen offers him a knighthood (which he refuses), and he spends 3 weeks shacking up with Mary Goodknight "convalescing."
Obviously, the basic premise of the book was a non-starter, so the writers pretty much jettisoned everything except Scaramanga and Goodknight. The good news is, Richard Maibaum came back on board to do the final draft of the screenplay from Tom Mankiewicz's earlier version. That means that stuff actually happened in the movie between the set pieces, unlike LALD. The bad news is, it was a mostly silly nothing.
We start, once again, with a teaser without James Bond in it, just a wax dummy (much as From Russia With Love had a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. goomba in a Bond mask). This is a distinctly better teaser than LALD. Instead of a bunch of random, unrelated events, we spend some quality time getting to know our villain and his henchman. It's far from perfect...it goes on too long; it's a little too impressed with itself for the "funhouse" death match as if other movies hadn't been doing it better and scarier for years; and the series' continuing fascination with 1950's cartoon versions of gangsters produces a most uninspiring foe for Scaramanga. And of course, you can't replace Roger Moore with a wax dummy (no jokes, please). But it is an improvement.
Then comes Lulu. Now, I don't hate this song as much as some others do. But it really is substandard. It's a vapid attempt to mimic Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" with a more uptempo beat, sort of "Goldfinger" meets the bouncy half of "Live And Let Die." Sadly, it falls well short of both of those, musically and lyrically. John Barry does do a better job of integrating it into the score than George Martin did in LALD, though. Historical sidenote: they really should have used the version Alice Cooper made for the movie...
Once the movie proper starts, we learn that Scaramanga has apparently decided to kill 007, and sent a trademark golden bullet ahead as a warning. This leads M to take the surprising step of relieving Bond and suggesting that he resign!! But M is really manipulating Bond to go hunt down Scaramanga first--look at the smile on M's face when Bond suggests that course of action. A well-played scene with M, once again demonstrating that beneath the cranky facade is a leader who respects Bond's abilities. Then again, by movie's end he's crankier than hell again, repeatedly telling Q to shut up and blaming things on Bond that couldn't possibly be his fault.
We then get the quest for Scaramanga, which takes Bond to Beirut, Macau, and Hong Kong. All colorful stuff, involving belly dancers, specialty gun makers, and a mysterious, beautiful woman. One of the interesting things is to watch 007's behavior. Roger Moore's Bond, it is often said, didn't play Bond as ruthlessly as Connery. That may have been true later in his career, but in this movie he's a real son of a bitch. Seriously. Watch how he threatens the gun maker Lazar. Yes, it's a humorous predicament, but Moore plays it as deadpan, not tongue-in-cheek, and as threateningly as Connery could have...he's a man to be taken seriously, not a quip-master. When he follows Andrea Anders to her hotel room, he is cruel and vicious, almost breaking her arm, slapping her around, and threatening to have Scaramanga kill her. Sure, he's motivated by a death threat, but this is not the James Bond who yells "Sit!" when confronted by a tiger--this is a Flemingesque no-nonsense agent.
When Bond shows up to the spot where Scaramanga is supposed to be, surprise, someone else is shot!! Apparently, Bond was not his target!!
Now, up to this point, I have to say that this has actually been a pretty good Bond film, teaser aside. We've got an interesting situation, with Bond's livelihood threatened (in more ways than one), lots of interesting locations, and beautiful women. It's been briskly paced, and the performances have been pretty good.
But this is the point where the film ever so slightly starts to go off the rails. The Hong Kong street where the assassination takes place is virtually empty, which drains it of any sense of an exotic location, making it look like a set where they couldn't afford extras (plus, a bustling street would have made Scaramanga's shot more impressive). The way it's staged, there's also no way Knick Knack could have gotten the solex agitator off of Gibson's corpse in the 3 seconds Lt. Hip was distracted--and if Bond hadn't been there, Hip never would have been distratcted, and there would have been zero chance to recover the solex. So some of the directing/editing/screenwriting cracks are starting to show, damn it!!
Solex agitator? Ah, yes, our MacGuffin for the movie. You see, being a creature of 1974, the "energy crisis" was on everybody's mind, so once again the franchise tried to get topical. The solex agitator was the invention of a British scientist who had defected, and the mission Bond was on when he was relieved was to find Gibson and get the solex back. The solex was "the essential component" in a solar energy system that was "95% efficient" and would "solve the energy crisis" (SPOILER ALERT--apparently, it didn't solve our energy problems). Now, that's a radically absurd coincidence, that Bond's hunt for Scaramanga leads him right to Gibson as Gibson is killed by Scaramanga--another sign of lazy screenwriting...
The writers apparently thought that pitting Bond against the world's top assassin wasn't enough to fill a movie, so they made the solex agitator the prize that everyone was seeking. The problem was, there were no real stakes involved. Since Scaramanga was going to auction off the solex, there's no reason Britain (or America) couldn't just buy the thing. And there was no real consequence to NOT getting it--no threat to world or English security, no war or global domination, and nobody England was competing against to get it. Compare with the McGuffin in For Your Eyes Only--two known Cold War adversaries each trying to get a vital military secret that could give launch orders to any of England's nuclear subs. It's got 2 known enemies jousting, there are real consequences, nobody can just buy the damned thing at an auction, and it's the actually point of the movie, rather than a sideshow distracting us from Bond vs. Scaramanga.
So with Scaramanga no longer an actual threat, the movie really derails. We get a lot of pointless fights and chases, and no real plot development. Bond tries to pose as Scaramanga via a fake third nipple, but since Hi Fat already had hired Scaramanga, he knew it was a ruse...so we waste a lot of screen time on Q's oddest gadget ever. Then we get a fight with sumo (in Thailand?) which ends when James Bond is conked from behind by a midget with a trident. How embarrassing. Then Bond is dumped off at a kung fu school to be killed...
Wait a minute, this bears more examination--it's a good example of how the movie changed from a decent spy picture to just having things happen because they amused someone. In no particular order:
A) Why, if you want to kill Bond, dump him unconscious at a kung fu school you own, let him wake up, and proceed to have your pupils spar with him? Never has "just shoot him!!" been more obvious.
B) Like last movie, we have to try to copy other popular cultural phenomenon, so this time we're trying to mimic Enter the Dragon. Sadly, it's a poor imitation, as nothing that we see there is as remotely well-filmed or as engaging.
C) What happened to all of Bond's ninja training? Or his judo? You'd think a serious secret agent in the 70's would know a least a little rudimentary martial arts...but Bond wins by deceit and punching...
D) Fair is fair: the bit where Bond knocks out his opponent while bowing is pretty funny. And check out how closely his next opponent watches during the bow.
E) When Bond tries to escape, Hip and hips 2 teenage nieces outfight 20 evil martial artists, without ever needing more than one blow to fell an opponent. Bond doesn't even throw a punch. All with silly music in the background, telling you that even John Barry isn't taking it seriously by this point.
F) Hip and nieces drive away, accidentally leaving Bond behind...even though the girls tell him, he never notices that the man they've come to rescue isn't even in the damn car. And it's never followed up on. Seriously, they're not even trying any more. Sigh....we're now in the land of farce.
And it wouldn't be a Guy Hamilton movie without a long and non-thrilling chase sequence. Hey, how about a boat chase!! Sure, we did one that lasted 2 1/2 hours last movie, so why not do another one?!? This one is mercifully briefer, but contains the most terrifying thing ever:
The return of Sheriff J.W. Pepper pushes the movie past the breaking point. How they thought this character was worthy of a return appearance is a mystery that I shall never be able to fathom. And while I know this is hard to believe, they manage to make him even worse than he was in LALD. Louder and more obnoxious? Yup. More racist? Yup--count the number of times he refers to Thais as "little brown pointy heads." He's the vilest personification of the ugly American. But at least he has just this one scene and we're done with him, right?
After Scaramanga kills his partner Hi Fat (rendering the entire 2nd half hour of the movie pointless, with no plot advancement whatsoever), Bond is left with no leads, and prepares for a night of unbridled lust with Goodknight. Until the deus ex machina, Andrea Anders returns. She reveals that she was the one who sent the death threat to Bond. The only way she can escape Scaramanga is to get someone to kill him, and only Bond is capable. And check out Bond still being something of the cad--despite the fact that Anders is throwing herself at him, he refuses to help her (or be seduced by her) until she promises to get him the solex. And he refuses to kill Scaramanga unless he gets the solex first.
We then get a scene that is simultaneously great--Bond's first meeting with Scaramanga, the death of Andrea, kickboxing!!--and silly--Goodknight getting locked in the trunk by Scaramanaga. This leads to--surprise--another long, boringly filmed car chase. This chase is different for two reasons. First, it brings back J.W. Pepper on more time---OH GOD IT BURNS AAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!!! Secondly, there is The Jump.
This is a crazy good stunt, and they really do it--no trick photography or fakery. Stunt driver Bumps Willard had been doing this on the car show circuit for a couple of years, so the producers brought him in to set it up for Bond. They had to rebalance the car (the driver was in the center), and used computers to make all the calculations...but it was done for real, without special effects, and they nailed it on the first take!! Sadly, this scene is marred by two things--the decision to show it in slow motion, and the uproariously funny use of a slide whistle as a sound effect, both of which make the stunt feel cartoony and faked, inviting laughter instead of awe. And to complete the over-the-top ridiculousness, we get Scaramanga's flying car.
Which leads to our final showdown at Scaramanga's secret HQ in Chinese territory (actually the gorgeous Phucket, Thailand). Well, eventually leads to our final showdown. Scaramanga insists on giving Bond a tour of his solar plant, which gives Bond a chance to show off obscure physics knowledge while making Scaramanga look stupid. Seriously, if you want a good compare/contrast between Connery's Bond and Moore's, it's right here: Connery was knowledgeable about liquor and not much else (e.g., he doesn't know much about diamonds in Diamonds Are Forever) while Moore excelled at showing off by giving pompous, boring know-it-all lectures on the temperature of liquid helium or the exact processes of a solar energy converter.
The final showdown between Bond and Scaramanga is partially a let down due to the fact that it's just a repeat of the teaser--we've already seen all the funhouse tricks. Also, the denouement seems physically impossible, or at the very least bad directing and editing. We start with this shot:
Scaramanga doesn't look too far away, but then suddenly we see this:
Which means that in 32 seconds of screen time, Bond A) removed the dummy B) took off the dummy's coat and tie C) put on the dummy's coat and tie immaculately D) somehow retrieved his lost gun, or grabbed the dummy's gun--what, it was loaded? E) put the dummy out of sight and F) got into the pose--all while within Scaramanga's line of sight. Nice trick.
But despite Scaramanga being dead, we still have 14 minutes to kill, so we first have to retrieve the solex, which leads to the MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT IN BOND HISTORY:
That's right, Goodknight activates the solar collector with her butt. This is the second out of three movies that's had had the villain capture the Bond girl and dress her in a bikini at the end, and in both those movies the girl's butt played a prominent role in the outcome. Something you want to tell us, Guy Hamilton??
And then there's the last bit with Bond vs. Knick Knack, the less said about the better. This was a case of the producers going for an unusual henchman, and coming up with someone so tremendously unthreatening that it damages the credibility of the whole situation. When Bond can dispatch him by locking him in a suitcase, well, we're not exactly in Red Grant or Oddjob territory, are we? If you're going to have the henchman survive to take revenge after the boss dies (3rd movie in a row), you really should have that henchman be someone Bond and the audience might actually worry about.
Christopher Lee is great as Scaramanga, but the script keeps undercutting him by making him out to be a total dufus. He's played as sort of an idiot savant at murder, but clueless at everything else. He's not as adept at wine as Bond, behaving like a fanboy taking notes on his hero's favorite things. He kills Andrea to get the solex back, but unlike Bond, doesn't even bother to look on the floor where it may have fallen out of her purse. He doesn't understand anything about the solar energy MacGuffin of the plot, which makes the solex agitator even more painfully obvious as a needless time-filler. When the villain doesn't understand or care about the goal of the movie, that devalues both the goal and the villain.
Britt Ekland is a lovely lady, albeit not a great actress. Yet, to be honest, she's not as bad as everyone seems to remember (myself included). Yes, she has her moments of incompetence, ESPECIALLY the butt scene, but surprisingly they're usually mixed with moments of surprising effectiveness. Example: yes, she cuts off James taxi when he arrives in Hong Kong, so he can't follow Anders; but it's her knowledge that only the Peninsula Hotel used green Rolls Royces that leads him to her without another boring chase scene. Yes, she should have got the hell out of the way once she was handed the solex; but she was trying to do the right thing by planting a tracer on Scaramanga's car. If she doesn't do that, they never find him again. She's wise enough to call Bond on his preference for one-night stands, even if she does give in. And she's a great sport about getting stuck in the closet while Bond and Anders are making the beast with two backs (second movie in a row Bond hides a girl in a closet!!). Yes, she becomes a complete dithering idiot at the end...but on the whole she's more helpful than people usually notice. I don't know that I would put her in the top half of Bond girls, but I do think she's better than given credit for.
So what we have here is a frustrating movie that starts out so very well, but then quickly disintegrates into a hodgepodge of re-used cliches and joke characters from the prior two Bond movies, an emphasis on the silly that kills most of the sense of danger and adventure, and a notable sense of tiredness that resulted from having the same director and writer on for 3 times in a row. Whether the producers would acknowledge it or not, the franchise was in serious trouble. Could it be saved? Tune in next week to find out...
SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
**Ladies and Gentleman, the first high five in James Bond history:
**We get the first mention of another Double-O agent since Thunderball, and for the first time one is actually named--Bill Fairbanks was 002!!
And can I just say, that Saida was one cold-hearted bitch of a belly dancer?? Her lover is shot through the head while laying in her arms, and before doing anything else she pries the bullet out of the wall to use as a lucky charm?!? That's lucky?!?
** One of the more famous glitches in the franchise's history: the makeup table gets shoved askew during the fight, so you can see the crew in the mirror at one point.
By the way, why, exactly, are these guys attacking Bond???
**I didn't really talk about Maud Adams above, did I? She's probably the best thing about the movie. She brings a real sense of class and desperation to her role, and she's sexier than hell to boot. And she actually makes you believe the silly plan that she came up with. It's no surprise they tapped her to be the Bond girl a decade later.
**In many ways this is the kinkiest Bond movie. Bond describes his idea for a fake superfluous nipple "kinky," and the way Scaramanga caresses Anders with his gun after a kill is pretty icky. Ian Fleming would be proud.
**It's the sport of the future.
**Anybody writing about this movie has to include this shot...it's obligatory.
**So billionaire capitalist industrialist Hi Fat, who's expecting to make kajillions with the solex agitator, set up his energy station in Communist China?? And he seriously believed that they weren't just going to seize it from him, if for no other reason than to cause economic chaos in the West (see Goldfinger or You only Live Twice)?
**Product placement is part of the game, and I'm usually not one to whine about it, but whatever thrills there might have been in the car chase in Bangkok are drained away by the sight of an AMC Hornet chasing an AMC Matador. Oh, how exotic and thrilling. They could have made something of that by emphasizing the oddness (see the Citroen in For Your Eyes Only, for example), but the whole thing is done without irony of any kind. So two cars that would be rejected as too lame for a Starsky and Hutch chase are the centerpiece for a James Bond film. (Before you comment, yes, I know that the twisty car jump was designed for AMC's, so it was sorta required, but still...)
**I've been remiss...I haven't mentioned Chu Mi yet.
**From the dialogue in the teaser, Knick Knack and Scaramanga have invited many a villain to the island, to give Scaramanga some competition to keep him happy. Here's the question: do these guys know they're going after the world's greatest hitman? What, exactly, does Knick Knack tell or promise them? Either the hitmen are arrogant idiots to believe they can take Scaramanga, or Knick Knack is a dickweed, setting them up on false pretenses...sure they're bad guys, they deserve to die, but still...
**If your vats of liquid helium are going to cause the entire island to explode if anything room temperature gets dropped in them, shouldn't you have better lids on them? And not have walkways with breakaway railings right above them?
**Prior to the butt scene, before Bond climbs in into the pit to get the solex, he takes time to move the control console closer to the pit. Why? There's no reason to, except to have it close enough for Goodknight's butt to hit it!! What a clumsy piece of staging...
**Bond Score: 2. Anders and Goodknight. Cumulative Bond Score: 26
And as always:
Can Ringo Starr's wife save the franchise? Be here to find out!! BONUS: The first and only topless scene in Bond history!!