Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN

1965
Ian Fleming


A year has passed since the presumed death of James Bond while on assignment in Japan. When a man calls MI6 claiming to be the man once classified as "007," skepticism is only natural. The more he speaks, however, the more convincing he sounds. Brought before M, Bond explains how the police in Vladivostok helped him remember his true identity--not a mute Japanese miner, but a debonair British secret agent. The KGB took custody of Bond then, and helped him realize that his old boss had to be eliminated for the good of the world.

M thwarts the attempt on his life, but refuses to press charges against his former superstar agent, believing that one who has been brainwashed can be "unbrainwashed." Hence, Bond's license to kill is restored. His assignment? Track down (and take out) a man who is suspected of murdering at least four other spies.

Six weeks into the mission, "Mark Hazard" from Transworld Consortium is hanging out at a cafe/brothel in Jamaica, looking for some leads on Francisco Scaramanga, AKA "Paco," AKA "Pistols," a Cuban assassin for the KGB and DSS when who should walk in but the lean mean man with the gold-plated Colt .45. Bond refuses to be intimidated, by either Scaramanga's aptitude or attitude, and that has a lot to do with Scaramanga offering "Mark Hazard" a quick payday as his "personal assistant."

Scaramanga is building a hotel nearby, and some investors will be visiting to check out progress. As these men are also members of the KGB and American Mafia, ol' Paco wants to take precautions against perfidious actions.

Bond can scarcely grasp his luck, which only improves on site. The CIA is also after Scaramanga, and have dispatched none other than Felix Leiter to play-act as a hotel employee. He's bugged the meeting room where Scaramanga will address the men on the status of their investment. Bond is not permitted inside, but he still manages to eavesdrop via a champagne glass against the door.

Scaramanga's plans involve much more than just a struggling hotel. Destabilizing Western investments in the Caribbean sugar industry, drug-running, whore-smuggling and of course, casinos to entice tourists and make the hotel profitable. Also, one of the KGB guys is pretty sure that none other than MI6's own James Bond is hot on Scaramanga's tail.

Later that evening, Bond is awoken by some frantic window tapping. The fingers responsible are those of his personal secretary, Mary Goodnight, who has come to warn James that the KGB has marked him for death. Scaramanga catches them, but some quick thinking allows Goodnight to godspeed.

The next day is the big one. For the shareholders, since Scaramanga will be treating them to a day of fishing and food on an island accessible by a sight-seeing train ride. For Bond, since Scaramanga plans on offing him mid-journey. Eager to seize any advantage against a marksman so notorious, 007 slips into the other man's room and removes the next round from the cylinder of the golden Colt.

Waiting to board the train, Bond's coils are tighter than they've ever been. To make matters even worse, Scaramanga fires into the air (once, twice) in anticipation of the day ahead.

After ordering Bond to sit up front with the driver (a Rastafarian adverse to honkies), Scaramanga takes a spot in the brake van. In the car between them sit the remaining four guests. Bond's desperate thoughts are interrupted when Scaramanga announces there's a special attraction lying just ahead: a blonde woman, stripped nude, tied to the tracks. The victim-to-be, per the giddy gunman, is none other than Mary Goodnight, personal secretary to legendary British spy James Bond.

007 leaps up, yanks a lever to (eventually) stop the train, and puts a bullet between the eyes of the KGB goon assigned to end his days. He cannot get a bead on Scaramanga, nor does the train stop in time enough to spare the body on the tracks. But then…the man with the golden gun is down! Felix Leiter appears in the brake van and begins barking out orders, among them that Bond jump over the side and vamoose. Before he can get too far, though, Bond looks back and sees the prisoner make an unlikely escape.

With Felix unable to give chase, Bond scurries after Scaramanga, finding him near-death, half-covered in blood--and apparently unarmed. 007 struggles with making a cold-blooded kill, and granting the dying man a final mercy nearly costs Bond his life.

One thing that fans of both the novels and the films prized was predictability. An author, gnawed at by their own urges, is likely to lose interest to create long before the public loses its interest to consume. Ian Fleming had already made it clear that the twelfth Bond novel would be the last when he handed over the first draft in March 1964. Four months later, with the work still incomplete, Fleming died of a heart attack. Eight months later, The Man With the Golden Gun arrived in bookstores. Sales were brisk as usual, and even the negative reviews couldn't muster up much venom.

The general consensus tells us that Fleming's last Bond adventure is a disappointment from any angle of consideration. A slim volume with a slight story, an unworthy final gesture from a master of his craft. So imagine my surprise when I finished the book.

While it lacks certain hallmarks of the series, TMWTGG still entertained me greatly. A guilty pleasure, to be sure; unpolished, dialogue-heavy, and the cavalcade of coincidence is a bit much. Meeting at the cafe, Leiter already undercover in the hotel, Mary Goodnight showing up, it's all admittedly half-baked. A longer, meatier work might have solidified Francisco Scaramanga as one of the Bond's most formidable opponents, and allowed Fleming to enjoy a proper farewell tour. As a stand-alone work, however, I recommend it thusly: lamenting what was not is always preferable to lamenting what was.


1974
Director-Guy Hamilton
Writers-Richard Maibaum & Tom Mankiewicz


MI6 receives a most unusual delivery: a golden bullet etched with the numbers 007. Recognizing this as the calling card of notorious assassin Francisco Scaramanga, M orders James Bond to track down "The Man With the Golden Gun" and flash that fancy license of his.

Not quite a one-man hunt; traveling throughout Thailand and Hong Kong, Bond depends on the eventual assistance of an unwitting belly dancer, an ammunition manufacturer and finally, Scaramanga's mistress, Andrea Anders. 007 arrives on the scene just as the man with the coolest last name in Bond villain history makes his next hit, on some poor chap named Gibson who'd been carrying a "solex agitator." A cop puts Bond under arrest, and forces him aboard the wreckage of the RMS Queen Elizabeth. Turns out the cop is actually MI6 agent Lt. Hip, and if Bond is sure to mind his M and Q, he'll be of invaluable assistance in bringing down Scaramanga. Who, as it turns out, is working on something far more diabolical than just snuffing out a spy.

Bond and Hip head off for Bangkok, where the entrepreneur suspected of putting out the hit on Gibson keeps a magnificent estate, complete with mausoleum. His name is Hai Fat, and Bond is pretty sure he has no clue what Francisco Scaramanga looks like. If he's done his homework, though, Fat will be aware of Scaramanga's single distinguishing physical trait: a superfluous third nipple.

The ruse works, except it doesn't, since the real Scaramanga is already on the estate. Bond is subdued and sent to a dojo, since delayed death is preferable to immediate death for reasons only a scriptwriter can justify.

Of course he escapes. And of course Scaramanga blasts Hai Fat in his fat heart, taking ownership of the solex agitator and scurrying off to enable some more evil.

Andrea Anders contacts Bond, in more than one sense of the word. When he meets up with her the next day at a boxing match, 007 is mildly irritated to note that she has died. Scaramanga shows up and starts telling Bond how the series of events that made him so awesome. While this self-aggrandizing is going on, Bond sees the solex agitator that Anders promised to bring lying at her feet. He passes it along to Hip, who passes it along to Mary Goodnight, an abysmally dense MI6 staffer who could fuck up a one-car funeral. As it is, she fucks up a one-car bugging, winding up in the trunk of Scaramanga's vehicle just as she attaches a homing device.

Bond runs into a car dealership and hijacks an AMC Hornet--with J. W. Pepper in the passenger seat! Yes, the potbellied sheriff is on vacation in Thailand checkin' out rides, meaning for the second straight film he's unwittingly involved in a stunt of unprecedented bat-shitness. Scaramanga files to safety (in his car) but the homing device allows Bond to track him down on an island in Red Chinese waters.

Scaramanga shows 007 around his solar power station, which he hopes to soon sell. After a pretty underwhelming lunch prepared by Scaramanga's dwarf manservant Nick Nack, the man with the golden gun proposes a duel: his homemade invention vs. Bond's standard issue. Bond agrees, but Scaramanga flakes out.

In the pre-credits sequence, we saw a guy who looked an awful lot like Rodney the quipping gangster from Diamonds Are Forever show up on the island to challenge Scaramanga to a duel. To reach him, Rodney had to maneuver through a fun house maze of fake-out threats. He's utterly discombobulated by the time he reaches the end, allowing Scaramanga to take him out with a single shot (even though by all rights there is no way a middle-aged man in a track suit sliding down a ramp should not get hit by at least one bullet, I don't care how wonky the lighting in the room is). Scaramanga then turns and fires at…a James Bond mannequin. Yes, the man with the golden gun has a James Bond/Roger Moore mannequin complete with Walther PPK.

Now it's Bond's turn. As Nick Nack keeps watch (and gives occasional "encouragement") over CCTV surveillance, 007 makes his way past cowboys, gangsters, and mirrors. Soon, Bond goes off screen. Nick Nack is going nuts. Where the hell did the bastard go? He made his way out onto some scaffolding, away from the prying eye in the sky. Smart! Then he drops his gun. Shit!

Scaramanga, who has no idea that Nick Nack has no idea where Bond is, wanders into the room of reckoning. He turns toward the Bond mannequin just in time to see a blast of fire from the Walther PPK.

Woo! Time to retrieve Goodnight and get the hell on! Ah yes, the matter of Mary Goodnight. She's been in the solar power plant this whole time, bikini-clad and barely fighting off a rape-y employee. She finally knocks the creep over into a pool of liquid helium, which is such classic Mary Goodnight--good for the short-term, disastrous for the long-term. Bond is able to retrieve the solex agitator before the whole place goes 70s one hit wonder, and he along with Goodnight sail off into the proverbial sunset. Also I think the midget suffocated to death in a suitcase eventually.

The Man With the Golden Gun is a pretty low-brow affair, a far cry from the what the series started as, and the furthest wail from what the series is now. It remains one of the franchise's least-successful offerings, both commercially and critically, and was the last Bond feature for producer Harry Saltzman. The film is goofy and improbable--utterly in keeping with Roger Moore's 007. Silliness abounds, but never once while watching TMWTGG do I have to feign interest, unlike the much higher regarded Thunderball.

What can I say? There's a definite appeal in asininity. Not an infinite one, though.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
A loose adaptation in the style of Diamonds Are Forever and You Only Live Twice, The Man With the Golden Gun substitutes a brainwashed 007 for a brain-dead Mary Goodnight. How I loathe Mary Goodnight. Her picayune presence, her diffusive stupidity, ruins every damn scene she's in. And the actress who portrays her, Britt Ekland, is as sexy as particle board to boot. In the book, she's a harmless character. Genuinely cares for Bond's well-being, competent at her job, and when Scaramanga catches her in the hotel room, she's bright enough to improvise her way out of the minefield. I understand why Bond had an erotic fantasy about her. In the movie? Bond throws her into a closet and makes her listen to him bang some other broad. 

A closer adaptation of Fleming's novel would not have been possible. Even if for whatever reason the producers decided to pursue the plot of "brainwashed Bond," Roger Moore would  not have been the right actor. A 007 that drinks "Phu Yuck" and flirts with women named "Chu Mi," that was his lane. Moore's Bond is not sitting in a hotel room, considering his own mortality.

Both visions of the man have him tall and thin, but book Francisco comes off as a two-bit scuzz-piece with a lethal gift, an uncouth killer who exudes invincibility. Christopher Lee retains that air of fearlessness while adding a layer of slithery charm.

I also have to give movie Scaramanga props for having the superior golden gun. Going from a gold-plated, long-barreled Colt .45 to a firearm made out of a lighter, a pen, a cigarette case and a cuff link?

Interesting to note: in the novel, Scaramanga's fatal flaw is refusing to estimate the threat of James Bond. In the film, Scaramanga's fatal flaw is holding 007 in too high of a regard.

It's a miracle Bond didn't die in the novel, a wondrous event too reminiscent of how he survived Rosa Klebb's poison shoes. Of all the massive coincidences to jettison in a final edit, I wouldn't have been surprised if Fleming had sent that one flying into the swamp.

New plot means no Leiter, and that's actually a factor in my choosing the novel over the film. Bond was SO thrilled to see his buddy Felix. Does that ever happen in any of the films where Leiter appears? Like, Bond in the book doesn't have friends, he lives for his work, but if he did have a friend--he'd have Felix.

Another tipper: the book makes me crave breakfast food. The film--Thai food. I can eat breakfast at any time of any day. Thai, though? Never before 5 PM.

MIND THE GAP
From the dossier on Francisco Scaramanga:
    "Time notes…the fact that this man cannot whistle….There is a popular theory that a man who cannot whistle has homosexual tendencies."
    Aw yis, Eye-Eff! Knew you wouldn't let me down!

"Solex Agitator," such a great name. Like it pisses off the sun.

I really want to believe Ian Fleming would be embarrassed that the scene with the naked lady and the six-foot leather hand made it in print.

The barrel-roll car stunt is an all-timer. One. Take. Never has the AMC Hornet looked so cool. Composer John Barry was so awestruck he momentarily lost every ounce of sense he'd been born with.

Roger Moore's first four Bond movie have a total of five stunts that make me want to dropkick a grizzly bear.

I feel bad for wishing it hadn't been a showroom dummy on the train tracks. Blame it on residual Britt Ekland resentment.

So, when Bond loses his gun…clearly he did not climb down all that way to retrieve it. Meaning…Scaramanga fitted his 007 dummy with a real, loaded Walther PPK? Or a real one without ammo, but Bond had extra rounds on his person to load it with? I appreciate not being shown either way, but it's the kind of thing that gives witless people fits.

Did Scaramanga hope the Bond mannequin would one day come to life and challenge him to a duel? That wasn't even Scaramanga's end game here; it was his mistress that sent the golden bullet to MI6. Was he hoping someone would hire him to take out Bond eventually?

What the hell nincompoop approved "Mark Hazard" as a suitable alias for a secret agent?

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