Hamilton: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Guy Hamilton was the Bond auteur par excellence – the director who most understood that the best Bond films aren’t driven by character, by narrative, or even by action, but by spectacle and set pieces. Over his first three films, he steadily expanded the spatial palette of the franchise, moving from the relative realism of Goldfinger, to the hyperreal spaces of Diamonds Are Forever, to the supernatural spaces of Live and Let Die, the first Bond film to include a genuine horror element. Taken together, these three films play as a trilogy, since Live and Let Die ends by gathering and conflating virtually every spatial cue in the franchise. In doing so, it forms a summary of Hamilton’s work, but also raises the question of where he could possibly go next.

We get the answer in the opening scene of The Man with the Golden Gun, which plays as a flamboyant epilogue to Hamilton’s splendid trilogy. In this scene, an American gangster pays a visit to Francis Scaramanga, a hitman played by Christopher Lee, who resides in a lair built into one of the islands in Phang Nga Bay, in Thailand. We only glimpse this space, and while it’s easily one of the most surreal locations in the Bond franchise so far, it is still discernibly a single space, with perspectives and vanishing-points that permit us to (just) orient ourselves.

That all changes when this gangster steps inside Scaramanga’s lair. With the flick of a single switch, Nick Nack, Scaramanga’s sidekick, played Herve Villechaize, abstracts and fragments space. A regular room turns into a bizarre funhouse hallucination, full of shards of light and shade that make it impossible to make out any clear spatial coordinates. Moreover, there’s no way of distinguishing space from representations or remediations of space, as Hamilton overlays footage of the gangster moving through this zone with montage sequences of Nick Nack watching him through a series of television monitors. This total absence of spatial continuity culminates with a hall of mirrors that recalls The Lady from Shanghai, along with a series of prostheses that guide the assassin towards a splintered light show, where he is killed.

This superb opening scene marks the next stage in Hamilton’s project – to turn the dissolution of space itself into a spectacle, rather than focusing on a particular type of space, as occurs in his first three films. Of course, this project is too avant-garde to sustain an entire Bond film, which is perhaps why The Man with the Golden Gun feels a little less emphatically indebted to Hamilton’s vision than his last three films. Whenever he does get a chance,  he splinters and distorts space, producing some of his most spectacular set pieces in the process – or anti-set pieces, since this is also the most metatextual and self-referential of Hamilton’s four films.

Hamilton’s next chance to fracture space occurs during the first act, when Bond travels to Hong Kong after hearing that Scaramanga has a hit out on him. For the most part, The Man with the Golden Gun has a backpacking vibe more than a globetrotting vibe, dabbling around Southeast Asia, as we move from Phuket, to Hong Kong, to Macau, to Bangkok. Upon arriving in Hong Kong harbour, Bond notes the wreck of the Queen Elizabeth II, a cruise ship that was sunk in 1961. This is already an imposing spectacle in itself, but it turns out that this is also MI6’s headquarters in Hong Kong, since it’s the only structure in the city that can’t be bugged.

The scenes in the Queen Elizabeth II are almost as disorienting as Scaramanga’s lair, since the MI6 headquarters are built parallel to the water (or to the seabed) while the ship itself is keeled at a 45-degree angle. None of the perspectives make sense and there are no clear vanishing-points. The scale is all off, like those rooms that make people seem like giants by messing around with conventional vectors and sightlines. Like the opening scene, this is perhaps best described as funhouse space – and we soon learn Scaramanga was raised in a circus. Hamilton seems to be trying to fuse space with Scaramanga’s own consciousness – or with consciousness itself, divesting his camera of any claim to spatial distance or objectivity.

These fractured spaces lead, in turn, to weird Moebius strips of space and time – most iconically in the “corkscrew scene,” a stunt which involves manipulating two ramps just right so that Bond’s car twists around in the air as it leaps over a river. In Live and Let Die, the chase scenes fused terrestrial, aerial and aquatic trajectories in flamboyant ways, but now we have literal flying cars – and not just the corkscrew either. In one of the most surreal sequences, Scaramanga attaches wings to his plane and takes off, all while Bond’s assistant, Mary Goodnight, played by Britt Ekland, is trapped in the trunk. In perhaps the supreme spatial schism, Mary finally opens the trunk, and only realises at that very moment she is airborne.

As the film moves towards its final showdown at Phang Nga Bay, Hamilton grows more metatextual, starting to focus on the mechanics of set pieces as set pieces in themselves. In the opening scene, the funhouse space converges on a prosthetic model of Bond, which plays a much larger role when the real Bond tracks down Scaramanga. We now go “behind the scenes” of Scaramanga’s funhouse, to the foundations supporting his set pieces, as Bond climbs down through the scaffolding underpinning Scaramanga’s elaborate tableau. No longer content to fuse the spatial cues of the franchise, as occurred at the end of Live and Let Die, Hamilton now turns the literal scaffolding of Bondian space into his dominating spectacle.

Of course, the most iconic part of this conclusion is Scaramanga’s lair itself – and the surrounding landscape of Phang Nga Bay and Ao Phang Nga National Park. This would have been utterly alien and exotic to most Western audiences at the time – pillars of forested rock rising sheer from the water, like a terrestrial landscape that has been smashed apart and strewn out onto the sea. It all centres on Ko Tapu, an island rising from the middle of the bay – although this stretches the regular definition of an island, since it’s far taller than it is wide, a giant limestone karst that rises at a stark ninety degree angle, gradually picking up bulk as it ascends. Ko Tapu defies gravity in such a preposterous way that it splinters the space around it – it seems to defy regular space, or normal spatial reality. It also turned out to be the most resonant of Hamilton’s spatial schemes, transforming the neighbouring island of Khao Phing Kan into “James Bond Island” and stimulating the local tourist economy over the next decade.

These backdrops are so flamboyant that they probably couldn’t sustain the elaborate Cold War narrative of the Connery and Lazenby eras. In their place, we have the tightest, simplest and best Bond plot so far – a personal vendetta narrative, in which Scaramanga puts a hit on Bond (just because he can), and Bond sets out to find him first. The whole film becomes a phallic standoff between Bond and Scaramanga, both of whom compete for the audience’s gaze. Looking is continually associated with masculine potency – Scaramanga always has sex before he takes out a hit, because it supposedly improves his eyesight, while he traces his funhouse persona to a formative experience he had in the circus, when he took revenge on a man who shot an elephant in the eye by shooting him in the eye. This became his first “hit.”

Scaramanga is also the most suave, intelligent, alluring and charming Bond villain so far, to the point where he starts to feel like Bond’s alter-ego, or a ghost of Connery’s Bond. Bond has to define himself against Scaramanga in the same way that Moore has to define himself against Connery, so it’s telling that this film, like Goldfinger, is named after the antagonist. Both films are driven by villains who use gold as a phallic surrogate to emasculate Bond, and both films take place relatively early in Connery and Moore’s tenures, cementing their claim on the role. Scaramanga is considerably more erotic than Goldfinger, however, and regularly shot in cryptic, truncated and decontextualized sexual positions, like a fractured emanation of Bond’s own psyche. Conversely, Moore becomes most Connery-like whenever he hears about or witnesses Scaramanga’s potency, and this gives them a peculiarly dynamic rapport. 

At one level, this makes The Man with the Golden Gun one of the most hermetic and (literally) insular Bonds, since it’s largely about allegorising Moore’s graduation into the Bond role. But that also gives it a tightness missing from many of the Connery films, especially those that weren’t directed by Hamilton. The Bond legacy is the real antagonist here, and Scaramanga is just there to stage it, as a kind of cipher for the franchise itself, so it makes sense that he’s the most intelligent and interesting Bond villain up to this point – the villain most capable of mirroring Bond’s own thoughts and actions. In the process, Scaramanga also absorbs some of the ingenuity of Q, who is handled pretty peremptorily here, since, unlike most other Bond villains, Scaramanga is something of a scientific visionary. Q is present, but Scaramanga has the most Q-like scene in the film – creating the golden gun from a series of everyday objects.

Since The Man with the Golden Gun is reflexively about Bond itself, there’s more license to  embrace the exotic edges and preposterous potential of the franchise. We see this most clearly in Scaramanga’s infamous third nipple, which becomes a cipher for both Hamilton’s spatial ingenuity and Scaramanaga’s own sexual potency. The first shot of the film fixates on this nipple, floating at the top of Scaramanga’s chest as a harbinger of all the fractured spaces to come, while paving the way for a wide pan back to our first glimpse of Khao Phing Kan. We also learn that “there are cults” where a third nipple is “considered a sign of invulnerability and great sexual prowess” – right when Bond dons a prosthetic nipple to mimic Scaramanga.

This absurdity spills over into the action, giving it a comic edge while taking it in even more ingenious directions than the Connery films. Hamilton reprises the bayou scene from Live and Let Die, but this time as farce, as J.W. Pepper, the Louisiana sheriff played by Clifton James, returns as an obnoxious tourist who suspects Thai elephants of being Democrats. In the wake of Bruce Lee’s rise to fame with Western audiences, there’s also a strong martial arts focus, including sumo wrestling, kung fu and kickboxing. You Only Live Twice also included martial arts, but there’s more of a taste here for the absurdity of Westerners, especially Bond, adopting these Eastern traditions. At times, you can see the origin of films like Bloodsport that fuse Western and Eastern action while managing to be serious and campy at the same time.

As the film settles into its quasi-comic groove, Moore also relaxes further into his role – and this is probably the first time that he really seems comfortable making Bond over as his own. In his hands, Bond is almost a sitcom, right down to Lulu’s theme song, which could easily be the theme for a television series (“James Bond is here!”) The Man with the Golden Gun seems to exist at the nexus between film and television – in the best possible way – which must be part of the reason why it’s such a touchstone for Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip, another hybrid film-television text. Bond and Scaramanga have a similar passive-aggressive rapport to Brydon and Coogan, edgy and domestic at the same time, like a married couple who have spent just a little too much time on the same holiday, project or trajectory together.

Right when Bond and Scaramanga are at their most Cooganesque and Brydonesque, we get the scene that the latter quote the most in The Trip films, which also happens to be the scene where Scaramanga asks Bond to acknowledge their relationship: “Come, come, Mr. Bond – you enjoy killing as much as I do.” You have to wonder whether this scene was, in and of itself, the inspiration for The Trip, since this is the only time we see Bond and Scaramanga eating together, relishing the mouthfeel of their repartee in the same way as Coogan and Brydon. Like those two actor, Bond and Scaramanga have terrific comic chemistry – much better than Bond has with any Bond girl; probably the best rapport he has with anyone in the films so far.

In other words, Bond and Scaramanga are inextricable from one another – Bond is the man with the golden gun as much as his nemesis. Scaramanga doesn’t finally have a reason for killing Bond beyond the aesthetic perfection of it all – it will be his masterpiece, he claims, as he shows Bond his real golden gun, a solar device that focuses sunlight into beams of golden destruction. Bond may kill Scaramanga, by posing as his own prosthetic, but he can never control the sun, or stop the sun – he can only forestall and redirect it, meaning that Scaramanga lives on through the lighting of the film itself, and the spaces it illuminates in the final scene. This is the most brilliant and expansive tableau so far, set amid panoramic shots of Ao Phang Nga National Park, as Bond charters a lavish Chinese junk and sets sail for home.

In these final moments, Scaramanga thus ceases to be Bond’s antagonist. Instead, the real enemy is light, space, mise-en-scene – literally, in the scene where Bond is forced to defend himself during a gunfight in Scaramanga’s hall of mirrors. This sets up the grand narrative of Moore’s films – Bond struggling with his own media image, a struggle unique to Moore’s body of work, which lasted longer than any other Bond actor, and arguably spanned the most convulsive period in terms of changing media attitudes and aesthetics. For that reason alone, Hamilton is probably the most influential director of Bond films to date, using Bond to explore man’s relationship with physical space – and the relationship of men, specifically, with physical space – in a world that was rapidly shifting by the mid-1970s.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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