Monday, September 26, 2011

The Loneliest Profession: The Conversation With The Man With The Golden Gun

It's 1974. Roger Moore has survived an entire film without being rebooted off, and for his return effort, he gets to go up against Ian Fleming's cousin / Saruman / the Lord of Summerisle.

Unfortunately, although Christopher Lee has fairly good kudos as an actor, that's no guarantee the film will be any good. Just as hiring Roald Dahl as writer didn't rescue You Only Live Twice, nor will Lee be enough to save things here. Certainly the start, which only features Bond for one moment (in waxwork form) isn't promising. But if Lee had any respect for his art, would he have allowed himself to be equipped with a pair of rollerskates to allow him to deliver the coup de grace? Something's very fishy about the whole thing. It's almost as if, from the very start, the whole cast heard about the location (Phuket) and took that as an instruction instead.1 By the time it gets to Lee declaiming the immortal lines "What has Nick Nack prepared? Ah, mushrooms." we've gone well beyond the point of taking the piss.

Luckily, the opening titles are an absolute wonder, the epitome of stylish imagery and a classy singer.

Oh, no. No they're not. Having had a terrific theme tune for Live And Let Die, the Brocolli's realised their mistake and hired Lulu to bellow terrible couplets over some so-so silhouettes of women with no clothes. "Love is required / Whenever he's hired" indeed.

However, it's not all bad, all of the time. After a bit of repartee in M's office (where we get to glimpse a framed picture on M's desk of some guy (his son? his brother? his boyfriend? a random picture stuffed in by the set dresser?), Bond horses off to Beirut on a superfluous mission to pull a golden bullet out of some bint's navel, and gets in a punch up with two moustachioed bounders and their fat bald friend.

And this is a proper ding-dong, and no mistake. So much for Connery being the physical Bond and Moore a lighthearted chap who doesn't exert himself; he's busy punching people, battering their heads against solid walls, and then legging it when he's grabbed what he's looking for.

OK, maybe 'legging it' doesn't stand up so well as the action of an action hero, but it was a good start. On the downside, Bond isn't showing much charm when he tries to retrieve the gold bullet from the lady, and having him accidentally swallow the bullet has shades of Benny Hill all over it. At least we get the lovely lines
"I've lost my charm!"
"Not from where I'm standing."
Next, it's off to Macau. I never knew where Macau was until I moved to Hong Kong. Then again, I never knew where Hong Kong was until I moved to Hong Kong. Macau is basically Hong Kong (colony of a European power, everyone speaks Cantonese, there's too much neon) except with a Portuguese accent and scads of casinos. In recent years Macau has turned into an overblown caricature of Vegas, all neon lights and people in awful clothes losing all their money.

Whereas in 1974, it was just neon lights and people in awful clothes losing all their money. I suppose if you go to the Grand Lisboa (the only casino shaped like an enormous pineapple, no matter how much the owners insist it's a lotus) now, the croupiers all look like they work for the People's Liberation Army and are quite cross to be having you gambling, so the more soothing attire worn in The Man With The Golden Gun is a bit better. Plus there are buckets lowered on fishing lines from above. How quaint!


One enduring leitmotif of the Bond series is the inability to distinguish the different Asian nations. Bond, you'll recall, has a first in Oriental Studies from Cambridge, but neither he, nor anyone else, ever remarks on the differences between the Chinese and the Japanese, or the Thai. Why, it's almost as if he doesn't realise they're different. Perhaps the apotheosis of this comes in Hai Fat's karate school. In Thailand. Run by the Chinese. It's possible that this is a deep statement about how all martial arts have common roots, that the Thai, Okinawan and Shaolin schools are all based on a continuum of understanding about the necessarily finite number of ways a fist can be driven into the body of an opponent. Or perhaps to the makers of The Man With The Golden Gun, one funny little foreign chappy in pyjamas is much th same as any other. Which, unpleasant though it may be, draws us to conclude J.W. isn't satirising Americans when he yells at the men stuck in a boat on a canal in Bangkok; he's actually speaking for the filmmakers, and those really are "little brown pointyheads" down there in the boat. Oh dear. So much for cultural sensitivity. J.W. is a racist version of Foghorn Leghorn

Still, Roger Moore's Bond was never set up to be a liberal apologist for European colonialism. He's a suave playboy, exactly the kind of guy to insist on talking about a Solex agitator when a woman wants to sleep with him. What a charmer. I know this is The Man With The Golden Gun, but did it have to fail in all pretension of Bond being the man with the silver tongue? Between that and his earlier obsession with retrieving a golden bullet, Bond feels less like a bon viveur superspy, and more some sort of autodidact who might be best employed plumbing in your washing machine.

At least when he's using the world's worst chat-up lines, he's not whaling on the women. That carefree, happy-go-lucky version of Bond seems to have been swapped with somebody who enjoys slapping Maud Adams as hard as he can. (Mind you, she'll return for more of the same in Octopussy: is this a suspect sado-masochistic subtext about how women love to get busted in the chops?2) At least Britt Ekland is only locked in a wardrobe and not crushed inside a trouser press.

Well, Britt gets stuffed inside the boot of a car too (although since it's not a vehicle with Bond in it, she doesn't end up dead - thank heaven for small mercies) so the action eventually lumbers to Scaramanga's secret island for a finale that's just, well, a bitterly tedious rehash of Dr No, with more money and less charm.

I think this is the big problem with The Man With The Golden Gun; at every opportunity, it squanders any goodwill we might feel for it. There are some great locations (the half sunken Queen Elisabeth in Hong Kong harbour, the Thai boxing stadium) and some good repartee ("Scaramanga will use a golden bullet on you. That would be a pity ... because they're very expensive") but they're wasted in a plot that demands Bond is rescued from an army of karate chop-socky dudes, and then immediately abandoned by his rescuers. By a film with a flying car. By a film with a beautiful stunt as a (non-flying) car flies over a river in a beautiful parabola, that is ruined by the Benny Hill sound effect.3

If it wasn't for these, there could be so much that could be said by this film, the clear parallel between the sanctioned killing machine, Bond, and the mercenary, Scaramanga, both equipped with gadgets4, signature sidearms and a way with the ladies (that usually ends up fatally). If Scaramanga is the anti-Bond, can we draw conclusions about how the legitimacy of force they both employ as the best members of "the loneliest profession" is only conferred by 'legitimate' authorities that were themselves only born from force? Can we tie these worries about legitimacy of power to 1970s paranoia that the oil companies are suppressing clean sources of energy for their own evil benefit? Could somebody explain to the set designers that you can't attain absolute zero, so it's a stupid sign to have up in the middle of the powerplant?

Or shall we just rehash the last act from Dr No, and end up with a midget strapped to the mast of a ship?

So it's the waste of potential that offends, the stupidity in wearing a houndstooth jacket on a tropical beach, the whiff of putrefaction about Moore's Bond, two films in and clearly a woman battering, little-person abusing5 shit of a spy, who never learns about not being ambushed and doesn't have much in the way of wit and wisdom about him. You could have been so beautiful, James, and what have you become?

In the same year that Roger Moore was making himself look bad in TMWTGG6, Gene Hackman was doing his best to make himself look awful in The Conversation. Here we have a paranoiac obsessive sadsack, bravely shown to be very hard to get along with in the opening minutes of the film (don't ever buy him a surprise birthday present, or ask him for any details of his life), chugging away through what turns out to be a surprisingly oedipal tragedy set in San Francisco.

Hey, it must be a tragedy. There's a mime in it at the start.

The Man With The Golden Gun thinks it should be fun, and isn't. The Conversation is the sort of film that you know isn't going to be fun from pretty early on, and which just keeps getting harder and harder as it goes on, until (is this breaking the fourth wall?) even poor old Gene gives up and turns the TV up full blast before hiding under the blankets on his miserable hotel bed.

This single-minded devotion to unhappiness (and a young, evil Harrison Ford) is quite refreshing, because at no point is there a wobble in the mood. Gene Hackman doesn't recover his joie de vivre part way through the film and redeem himself. He does his job, the job he's very good at, and inadvertently causes the death of somebody you wouldn't expect, before finishing the film with some impromptu interior decorating that will enrage his landlord (a few days after he's bought Gene a bottle of wine, mind you - what gratitude is this?). It's refreshing, but not very enjoyable.

Actually, talking of the mood, there is a very strange mid-section to the film, where Gene goes to a business convention, and meets some people he doesn't like very much, goes for a drag race with some prats in a bright yellow sports car, and then has too much to drink with a bunch of surveillance geeks who like riding mopeds around a deserted loft space. Hmm. Perhaps the tone wasn't just uneven in the Bond films. I was hoping for something at the end to cheer me up (it's been a hard weekend having to watch Nick-Nack, after all) but there's nothing there. Apart from the knowledge that Hackman's character, Harry Caul, will resurface in Enemy Of The State in thirty years' time, but that's another story entirely.

I suppose in that part of the film, with rivalry with colleagues in the same field, difficulties with staff7 and people dicking around in your workplace, The Conversation might have been a prototype for The Office. But without documentary filming or any feeling of release. Fun, huh?

To begin with, I could see no parallel between these two films, but although there's no racial stereotyping in The Conversation (well, everybody is white, so there's no opportunity for that) there is a similarly disappointing sex scene. Well, not really a sex scene per se, because nobody has sex; it's hard to say which is worse: Bond obsessing about his Solex MacGuffin8, or Caul being all gloomy and weepy when presented with a naked woman. Either way, these seem to suggest that the Seventies weren't a bedhopping paradise - the Summer of Love has been well and truly rained off. Forget about listening to the Beatles with earmuffs on - we've really hit the gloomy decade.

What, then, can we conclude about 1974? If you were looking for the work of an auteur like Coppola, you were not going to leave the cinema elated. If you were looking for a work of mindless escapism, and you liked seeing Oriental-types getting kicked in the face / midgets being shut in suitcases / birds getting a smack in the mouth, then you were probably feeling pretty chuffed.

Until next month then, and The Spy Who Installed My Washing Machine.

1 Yes, I know how you're meant to say it, but you don't get an opportunity for a pun like this every month.
2 If you've watched nine Bond films in nine months, you should be well-equipped to discuss sado-masochism by now. Or at least masochism.
3 Speaking of Benny Hill, it's vaguely atrocious that Britt Ekland's bum should take the blame for setting off Scaramanga's Doooooomsday Machine. Honestly, you'd think this was the decade that produced Confessions Of A Window Cleaner. Oh. Bother.
4Though come to think of it, there's no stupid gadgets from Q this time around: why the hell not? They would have made some distraction from the rest of the rubbish on screen. I suppose Scaramanga was monopolising the silly gadgets (skates, car, solar-powered LASER BEAM), but what was Q working on all film? Not even a fully automatic wristwatch-cum-machine-pistol for Bond? Come off it. The Conversation, on the other hand, is filled with gadgets. Gloomy, hand-soldered surveillance gadgets, mind, but gadgets nonetheless. Was Bond being gazumped by the auteurs? So many questions. So many quite stupid questions.
5 Nick-Nack isn't the only one. That poor kid that gets chucked in the river for saving Bond's life was asking for well short of a thousand dollars (20,000 baht) and still gets stuck in the corpse-littered sewer of Bangkok. Even the colonial types didn't think The White Man's Burden was something you chucked overboard as soon as you could.
6 To be fair, I don't think anyone comes away from The Man With The Golden Gun looking good. But by the time Bond is stuck in the Solex, yelling instructions at Goodnight, he resembles nothing so much as a frustrated helpdesk technician trying to make his granny reboot her computer. This isn't a good thing.
7 Although Stan, Harry Caul's assistant, is a bit of a berk, at least he isn't Nick Nack, the sort of person who thinks the height of hilarity is a man tripping over a step.
8 In a film which keeps creating MacGuffins (the Solex, the golden bullet, Bond himself as an assassination target) and then forgetting about them - were the writers completely asleep at the wheel here?


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