The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 July (2.35 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

You’re that Secret Agent! That English secret agent! From England!

When Bond films were poor, they could be bloody awful and just about a case in point is The Man with the Golden Gun. Dull. Uninspired. Going through the motions. All words and phrases that sum up this by-the-numbers entry perfectly, with everyone involved appearing content to serve up a generic 007 flick designed to plug the gaps. There’s just about enough fun and excitement to stop the whole shebang sinking entirely into Victoria Harbour, but there it remains, half-submerged, the rusting husk reminding everyone of the fine line between getting it right and simply ensuring something – anything! – makes it to the screen.

The saddest part of the film is that it could have been so much finer. Christopher Lee was such a natural choice to play lead villain that he deserved a lot better than the forgettable Scaramanga, indeed as David Thomson once remarked, he could have donned the Walther PPK and been a more than adequate Bond. As it turned out, Lee wasn’t even the first choice for the role, but once Jack Palance rejected it the production turned to the actor who also happened to be Ian Fleming’s cousin.

Lee as Bond’s nemesis might sound a perfect fit, indeed elements of the script hint at the cat and mouse game between the pair – both masters in the art of killing – that it might have been. Yet the script (Richard Maibaum softening the ‘battle of wills’ draft turned out by Tom Mankiewicz) doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. Director Guy Hamilton shoehorned levity into every possible nook and cranny, diluting the ‘million dollars per hit’ assassin further, so that in the end Scaramanga is somehow less interesting than his dwarf sidekick (Herve Villechaize) and it’s never clear what’s going on with him. Is the point that he’s attempting to harness solar energy in order to sell on as cheap electricity, or is it the opportunity to duel with 007? Who knows. Lee has natural charisma to spare, which redresses the mixed messages a little. Scaramanga also shows a healthy respect for his opponent, going so far as to suggest that he and Bond aren’t so dissimilar, a notion the spy rebuffs harshly, but these are teases, glimpses at the movie The Man with the Golden Gun might have been. They aren’t enough.

As for Roger Moore, in only his second outing he’s showing all the signs of the caricature his Bond would become. The casual lechery Connery’s character suggested is rather explicit here, not to mention Moore’s supposed irresistibility to the opposite sex, meaning one woman he tortures (Maud Adams) goes on to happily jump his bones, whilst the vapid Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) gets kidnapped, runs around in tiny bikinis and waits for his ‘one golden shot.’ Within a film that plays for laughs, Moore has an appropriate approach, but because of this there’s a sense of him almost floating through it, never in any real danger and so the natural tension inherent in an action flick drops rapidly. He deals with a sumo wrestler who’s bear-hugging the life out of him by twisting the back knot on his mawashi. When Scaramanga’s dwarf accomplice is on the attack, Bond simply shuts him in a suitcase. Funny, right?

Worst of all is the return of Sheriff J W Pepper (Clifton James), the comedy cop from Live and Let Die and present here thanks to the Peppers just happening to be holidaying in the exact place Bond is getting into scrapes. Somehow, the Sheriff winds up sat alongside the agent as he pursues Scaramanga’s car across Bangkok, offering his usual stream of Louisiana drivel. He’s also on hand for the film’s best stunt, a 360 degree car jump across a broken bridge. It looks great, but even this is watered down with comic sound effects.

The real trouble with The Man with the Golden Gun is that, at heart, it’s all so very simple. Bond has an appointment with Scaramanga. One of them will kill the other. Getting there takes two hours of film, taking in a plot device about the assassin being involved in the theft of a Solex Agitator (which converts the sun’s rays into electricity, or something) that’s simply there to eat up the time. Despite everything, I enjoyed it enough to not lose myself in tedium, but only just. It’s strictly filler.

The Man with the Golden Gun: **

By the way, my apologies for being so poor this week, due to a combination of getting the job I applied for earlier in the month, and spending the rest of the week getting ready for it. I hope normal service will resume forthwith.

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Live and Let Die (1973)

When it’s on: Saturday, 14 July (2.45 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

For Live and Let Die, Broccoli and Saltzman tried the usual bribe to get Sean Connery back into Bond’s tuxedo. The traditional unprecedented fee was offered, but for once the Scot turned them down and ensured a new face as 007. American actors were strongly considered. Robert Redford and Paul Newman both figured. Burt Reynolds was a rather unlikely frontrunner, before the producers resolved to go British and returned to a previously shelved option. Roger Moore had been in the frame on the two occasions that Connery and George Lazenby won the role. A veteran of television thrillers and with nearly thirty years of screen acting behind him, Moore got a haircut, lost some weight and strolled into the part.

Considering the direction taken by the franchise with Diamonds are Forever, Moore was an eminently suitable choice. Arch, knowing and with his tongue permanently wedged in his cheek, 007 and he were perfect bedfellows. Even the name ‘Roger Moore’ is an innuendo worthy of Tom Mankiewicz’s pithy pen. Over the years, Moore would come to spend far too long in the part and was present for some of the series’ weakest entries, but he was the Bond I grew up with. He was my Bond, in the same way that Tom Baker was, and always will be, my Doctor Who.

Back in the day when televised film premieres counted for something, Live and Let Die’s UK network debut in 1980 was a big deal. 23.5m watched it and the new Bond. Moore brought a light touch to the role. He explained that he deliberately tried to distance himself from Connery’s interpretation, and this wasn’t just down to his choice of alcoholic beverage or a preference for neckties. There was his more comedic, mock-deferential attitude to M, the friendly flirtiness with Miss Moneypenny (which seems mutual, whereas I got the impression she would have jumped Connery in a heartbeat). Whereas the old Bond brought a sadistic touch to the way he dealt with his foes, Moore looked as though he found the whole killing business slightly distasteful. He’d do it, for Queen and country of course, but he didn’t have to like it.

Live and Let Die is a better film than Diamonds are Forever, and that’s because Moore fits more easily within the overall tone. The serious spycraft of older entries was ancient history. All the film offers is a thrill ride – jump on and have fun! There are stunts, crocodiles, sharks, a speedboat chase, girls, Voodoo… What’s not to like? Moore is good at this sort of chicanery. The raised eyebrow from his Saint days might be kept in check here, but it twitches fiercely as the agent floats through the action, placed in perilous situations with the caveat that he’ll never suffer any serious harm.

Scraps remain from Fleming’s source novel, and the character of San Monique dictator, Dr Kananga, is an invention of Mankiewicz’s screenplay. As it turned out, Kananga was ‘born’ as the production team scouted for locations. Coming across a crocodile farm in Jamaica, they learned it was owned by a certain Ross Kananga, who not only lent his name to the film’s main baddie but also performed the famous crocodile jump stunt. The gate to his crocodile farm carried an ominous warning – ‘All Trespassers will be Eaten’ – which makes an appearance in the film.

Live and Let Die was made at the height of Blaxploitation. At one point, Bond enters Harlem and, while the very appearance of a well dressed English gentleman in Manhattan’s ‘black’ district would be sensational enough, is subjected to a slew of jive talk, some of which is jaw droppingly awful and horribly dated. Amidst all the honky catcalls, he comes across the picture’s main love interest, Solitaire, who’s played by Jane Seymour. Dr Quinn and endless appearances in TV movies and mini series were still some way off, and Seymour is virginal loveliness, indeed her ability to read the Tarot is linked to her maidenhood. This is before Bond enters her life, of course, and ends all that nonsense via a ridiculously obvious card trick. Julius Harris plays Tee Hee, the henchman with a robotic pincer where his arm used to be, and then there’s Mr Big (Yaphet Kotto), the underworld kingpin who has minions on every corner. A fantastic sense of danger follows Bond as soon as he sets foot in the States. His every move is relayed to Mr Big by walkie talkie carrying drones on each street corner. The driver taking him to Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is shot while the car is still moving. He sits in a bar alcove, only to find it’s a trap! It’s a shame the threat of Mr Big turns out to be so limited, no match for 007’s skills, yet the implication is quite thrilling.

Less so is the film’s set piece special, a speedboat pursuit on the Louisiana bayou. Bond pulls every trick in the book to elude his pursuers, leading to a stunt-packed ride for viewers, yet it’s actually a little dull and lasts far too long. The whole thing is soured further when a local sheriff gets involved. J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) is the stereotypical Deep Souther, hauling a pot belly in his fruitless efforts to catch up with Bond. Poor old J.W. Clearly inserted into the plot for nothing more than comic relief, his casual bigotry and evident stupidity are held up as reasons to dislike Live and Let Die (he also features in the ill-starred follow-up). That said, in a film where the bad guys are all black, there’s some credit in making a white man the butt of the joke.

The worst thing about the boat chase is that it seems the film has a Louisiana sequence just to showcase the scenery. Far better is Live and Let Die’s other pursuit, as Bond and Solitaire escape in a rundown double-decker bus, which becomes a single-decker after colliding with a low bridge. Better again is the voodoo business, just for its sheer daftness and fun with snakes. Rosie Carver (Blaxploitation veteran, Gloria Hendry) turns up as a treacherous CIA agent. Bond is on to her from the start, yet she meets her maker via a bullet shot from one of Kananga’s scarecrows, superb and scary devices that can be used either for spying or assassination.

Live and Let Die enjoyed massive box office success and sealed Moore’s future as Bond. It also guaranteed the steer of the franchise, locked in spiralling levels of silliness as the aim was to provide fun and thrills, moving 007 along to the next action scene as briskly as the exposition would allow. It works here, just about, though later entries would demonstrate that the balance between entertainment and plain daftness was fine indeed. As Moore makes quips about ‘A genuine Felix Leiter’ to his CIA liaison’s voice emanating from a car lighter, and agents are offed during ingeniously double-edged jazz funerals, it’s enough of a ride to forget the absence of John Barry. Perhaps it helps that Live and Let Die features one of the series’ best theme songs, performed by Paul McCartney and Wings, which is referenced frequently in the funked up score.

Live and Let Die: ***

Diamonds are Forever (1971)

When it’s on: Saturday, 7 July (2.55 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The original plan for Diamonds are Forever was to make it a direct sequel to On her Majesty’s Secret Service. George Lazenby was slated to star, with Peter Yates again behind the camera and opening the film with the murder of Tracy. The story would then revolve around a revenge mission by Bond against Blofeld. But fate intervened. OHMSS clawed its way towards making a profit and Lazenby had tendered his resignation before the picture premiered. Used to producing financial juggernauts, Broccoli and Saltzman were in a dilemma. Where next to take 007?

Their initial answer lay in the series’s success in the States. Pandering to their biggest audience, the producers planned for an American Bond and, after scouting the usual raft of names, agreed a contract with Psycho actor, John Gavin. But then the unlikeliest coup of all took place when Sean Connery was persuaded to don the tuxedo again. He didn’t come cheap, commanding an exorbitant $1.25 million salary and the funds to star in and produce two further films for United Artists, yet it didn’t matter. With Connery back on board, the franchise could get back to doing what it (thought it) did best and effectively remake Goldfinger. Yates was out, and instead Guy Hamilton was hired with the express order to repeat his earlier success. Gert Frobe was proposed to play the brother of Auric Goldfinger, but Tom Mankiewicz’s rewritten script (from Richard Maibaum’s original) instead went for Blofeld, this time with Charles Gray in the role. Gavin was paid to walk away from the project and, determined to retain an American flavour, Diamonds are Forever took Las Vegas as its dominant setting.

If OHMSS can be considered a reboot of the format, then Diamonds is definitely a regressive step. Jettisoning the heartful Bond played by Lazenby, the character is essentially reset with Connery back in the part. After paying lip service to its predecessor by having Bond swathe a vengeful trail in search of Blofeld, the credits roll and, sure enough, it’s back to pre-Majesty’s business as usual. The message to viewers is clear – forget that aberration of a flick; this is the real Bond.

Only the real thing doesn’t feel half as good. With all the substance of a henchman who happens to be standing between Bond and his prey, Diamonds goes for a light-hearted approach, trying out the near-pastiche that would define the Roger Moore years to come. It’s played mainly for laughs, the plot acting as window dressing for expensively mounted stunts and heavy handed gags. Connery looks as though he’s trying to maintain his dignity, but like the film he appears tired and saggy around the midriff, whilst Jill St John, as the lead Bond girl, ticks the glamour boxes and obligingly wears very little but lacks all credibility once she no longer needs to play the part of a hard-nosed diamond smuggler and becomes the archetypal simpering female. As for the villain, one wonders what SPECTRE’s Number One did to deserve such a rubbish reading of his character. The camp villainy Grey projects is such a far cry from the shadowy leader of From Russia with Love that it’s simply impossible to take him seriously. Blofeld’s brief appearance in drag is simply the icing on this particularly mouldy cake.

The Las Vegas location looks almost appropriately tacky. The shoot had an almost free run of many of the city’s casinos thanks to the patronage of reclusive fan, Howard Hughes, and as thanks the story was adapted to shoehorn in a Hughes type character, played by Jimmy Dean who naturally turns into Bond’s ally. And the less said about the moon buggy business, or the botched stunt involving the car driven on its two right wheels, the better.

Diamonds isn’t entirely worthless. The confined space in which a fight between Bond and Peter Franks takes place lends the scene a degree of inescapable brutality. Two of the villains, a pair of gay assassins are interesting enough to command far more screen time than they eventually get. Another bit of action, in which Bond climbs up a Vegas skyscraper, is dizzyingly well filmed, especially as it suggests he does this kind of thing all the time, the sort of vertiginous stunt that any audience member in their right mind wouldn’t even consider. Supporting everything is a really fine score by house composer, John Barry, topped off with Shirley Bassey’s eminently memorable theme song.

And viewers responded, turning the film into another £100 million+ bonanza at the box office and proving the producers right all along. Perhaps silly thrills and the presence of Connery were all that was ever needed in the end. But with hindsight, it’s clear this was a picture made by people who’d effectively run out of ideas and were happy enough to go through the motions.

Diamonds are Forever: **

Goldfinger (1964)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 May (3.30 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

In the 1996 Simpsons episode You Only Move Twice, Homer foils the efforts of James Bont, arch-enemy of his apparently benevolent new employer who turns out to be a super-villain. Bont is a thinly veiled James Bond, but more than that he’s the  Bond from Goldfinger. After that, it becomes apparent that so many 007 parodies in fact spoof Bond circa 1964, the year of Goldfinger, the year when the franchise exploded into a global phenomenon.

It’s not hard to see why. Goldfinger’s Bond sets the template for all the films that follow – you either get Goldfinger copies (the rest of Connery’s work on the series; all the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan entries) or anti-Goldfingers, when they tried something different, often with commercially negative results. The film is nothing more or less than a financial juggernaut roaring into life. Despite costing more than the previous two episodes combined, Goldfinger made back its investment within two weeks of its release. It would become the first Bond to take over $100 million at the box office. It ensured future shoots became the stuff of global attention whilst its star, an increasingly irritated Sean Connery, was unable to go out in public without being hounded.

So what’s the secret? Why did it all click into place here rather than in Dr No or From Russia with Love? The two earlier films were big hits in their own rights, but it’s here that a conscious effort was made to dial down the serious spycraft elements of the story in favour of fun and thrills. Bond drives a cool Aston Martin in Goldfinger. Not only did it prove to be almost the perfect combination of man and machine, ensuring the tourer gained iconic status that it’s never since lost, it was also a car laden with gadgets and weaponry. The infiltration of ‘Q Branch’ into 007’s professional life had already started with the low-key briefcase he carried in From Russia with Love, yet it’s in Goldfinger the staple Bond scene of the spy visiting Desmond Llewelyn’s exasperated weapons inspector (‘Put that down Bond – that’s my lunch!’) ahead of every mission first took place.

Joseph Wiseman as Dr Julius No gave us a glimpse of the ‘super villain’ Bond would come to face on a regular basis, but Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) comes to define the megalomaniac, larger than life nastiness that would shape the series’ baddies. The laser scene in which Goldfinger expects Mr Bond to die might be the best remembered moment of the villain’s short-lived career, but there’s plenty to enjoy in this borderline psychopath, not least the flamboyant conversion of his recreation room into a scale model demonstration of his plan to raid Fort Knox. There’s also the fact he keeps Bond alive, long after he knows exactly who he is and has had numerous opportunities to get rid of him. Why he does this is never made entirely clear beyond the simple potential for gloating, yet it’s a much parodied idiosyncrasy because obviously he gives 007 the chance to escape and foil his plans and that’s exactly what happens. Goldfinger’s biggest mistake is to put Bond in the care of Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), who makes it clear she’s quite immune to his charms i.e. gay. In one of those scurrilous, ‘so quaint it’s beyond condescension’ signs of the times, this is of course just a challenge to our hero, who has naturally seduced Pussy and got her onto his side before the climactic scene. Only in the sixties…

At least Pussy – Blackman had the rare distinction of being older than her Bond, within an age differential that became almost embarrassingly wide at times – escapes the kind of fate that dooms the spy’s first squeeze, Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), who’s killed by being suffocated in an all-body covering of gold paint. Bond misses the moment; he’s been knocked unconscious by Oddjob (Harold Sakata), Goldfinger’s henchman who, as the first in a string of luridly gifted villains, can decapitate a fellow with his bowler hat.

Terence Young directed the first two films, but he was removed from the Goldfinger crew after a pay dispute, so Broccoli and Saltzman turned to Guy Hamilton,who’d been approached initially when the producers sought a director for Dr No. A British film maker who had worked with Ian Fleming in intelligence during World War II (having been involved with the French Resistance) and who learned his trade through being Carol Reed’s Assistant Director, Hamilton was a fine choice. In the first of his four Bonds, Hamilton knew enough to let the action and pace take over, events and twists unfolding at such a rate that viewers were breathlessly sucked in, leaving only the most ardent hater to realise it was hogwash. Above all, Goldfinger was slick and tremendously packaged. Future directors needed to ensure they learned from Hamilton and maintained his sense of timing; otherwise audiences would quickly catch on that there was very little at the film’s core. All style – and what style! – but no substance.

Goldfinger: ****