The Man With the Golden Gun

The Man With the Golden Gun was Ian Fleming's last James Bond novel before his untimely death in 1964. Although Bond was known for grand scales and grander drama, his last two books (the previous being You Only Live Twice, which I reviewed here, were by comparison, intimate. Fleming also knew that you didn't need an exploding volcano fortress or a Solex Agitator to create an damn good, if flawed, spy novel.

Executive Summary
TMWTGG starts of with a bang, but ends with a long whimper due to an uninspiring villain, a dimwitted Bond, a naive and oddly prudish heroine, a reckless and murderous Felix Leiter, and incomprehensible decision-making on all parts.  Read Chapters 1-2 and call it a day.

Overanalytic Spoiler-Rich Synopsis
When we last left our hero at the end of Twice, he was an amnesiac who had unknowingly fathered a child with Kissy Suzuki and was headed into Russia to find out who he was. Bond's fabled luck didn't hold up between books, and as a result we have two of the most riveting chapters in the entire series opening TMWTGG.
    He had expected some delay before he could establish his identity. He had been warned to expect it by the charming "Colonel Boris" who had been in charge of him for the past few months after he had finished his treatment in the luxurious Institute of hte Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad. A man's voice came on the line. "Captain Walker speaking. Can I help you?"
    James Bond spoke slowly and clearly. "This is Commander James Bond speaking. Number 007. Would you put me though to M., or his secretary, Miss Moneypenny. I want to make any appointment."
The K.G.B. it appears have taken advantage of his condition and brainwashed him into their assassin. He's shaky, on nerves, and just a little off. MI6 isn't fooled a bit, but play along to try to find out what is going on. What is going on is Bond is being played as a psychopathic puppet, who's just barely holding it together.
    "...And the Chief of Staff says he hopes you'll be free for lunch afterwards," Major Townsend said cheerfully. James Bond smiled for the first time. It was a thin smile which didn't light up his eyes. He said, "That's very kind of him. Would you tell him I'm afraid I shan't be free."
Bond's chilling allusion to his upcoming assassination attempt of his boss sets the stage for the confrontation with M., which the old man gamely allows. Like Bond, he plays it on the edge to try to get some information and relies on his own Q branch devices to avail him if needed. After a brief exchange of tense political words:
    James Bond's hand moved nonchalantly to his right-hand coat pocket. M., with equal casualness, shifted his chair back from his desk. His left hand felt for the button under the arm of the chair. "For instance?" said M. quietly, knowing that death had walked into the room and was standing beside him, and that this was an invitation for death to take his place in the chair.
    James Bond had become tense. There was a whiteness round his lips. The blue-grey eyes still stared blankly, almost unseeingly at M. The words rang out harshly, as if forced out of him by some inner compulsion, "It would be a start if the warmongers could be eliminated, sir. This is for Number One on the list." The hand, snub-nosed with black metal, flashed out of the pocket, but, even as the poison hissed down the barrel of the bulb-butted pistol, the great sheet of armor-plate glass hurtled down from the baffled slit in the ceiling and, with a last sigh of hydraulics, braked to the floor. The jet of viscous brown liquid splashed harmlessly into its centre and trickled slowly down, distorting the reflection of M.'s face and the arm he had automatically thrown up for additional protection.
Surviving the cyanide attack, and having Bond cured in their own rehab facility (electric shocks), M. is presented a dilemma. He knows Bond was brainwashed, but he can't just pretend things are back to normal given his follow-through with the attempt. His solution: set Bond on a suicide-mission to find and take out a well-known and prolific K.G.B. gunman, Scaramanga. If he is successful, he's earned his way back in. If not, the problem is solved.

M. retires to his club to read the dossier on Scaramanga, which includes an opinion piece by a former professor of history on the assassin's gun play symbolism:
    "I have doubts about his alleged sexual prowess, for the lack of which his gun fetish would be either a substitute or a compensation. I have also noted, from a profile of this man in Time magazine, one fact which supports my thesis that Scaramanga may be sexually abnormal. In listing his accomplishments, Time notes, but does not comment upon, the fact that this man cannot whistle..."
Fleming's homophobia is only pretty ridiculous display here, which only serves to provide a few eye-rolls in an otherwise interesting history of the man.

So, Bond sets off on a cross-continental chase for his man, knowing that Scaramanga's skills are likely better than his own.
    It was all very fine to be told to "eliminate" the man, but James Bond had never liked killing in cold blood and to provoke a draw against a man who was possibly the fastest gun in the world was suicide.
His detective work still leads him face-to-face with his man in a bordello, where Scaramanga gets the drop on him, not knowing if Bond is a innocent stranger or on a mission.  Instead of shooting the suspicious Englishman, he kills a pair of the innkeeper's pet blackbirds in a casual display of marksmanship.  Bond doesn't even bat an eye, and when Scaramanga tries to be even more menacing with his pistol, Bond dismisses him.
    Bond said, "People don't tell me what to do. I tell them." He walked on into the middle of the room and sat down at a table. He said, "Come and sit down and stop trying to lean on me. I'm unleanable-on."
Scaramanga's surprising response is to shrug and do just that, as if to acknowledge that this stranger can't be bothered by such things as a nearly psychotic man waving and shooting things around him. Scaramanga then proposes to hire Bond as a bodyguard for $1000 for a hotel-stock scheme he has going on. Though knowing it's probably not a good idea, Bond trusts his instincts and accepts.

In this little encounter, we have several examples of assassins behaving stupidly. First, Scaramanga may not know that he's been targeted for assassination himself, but a stranger showing up in his secret hideaway should be all he needs to follow through with his instinct. Instead of Bond's steely reserve confirming he is indeed an assassin (who else wouldn't be intimidated by gun-play?), Scaramanga's financial situation with his hotel leads him to jump ahead to a scenario where he doesn't see a threat but an asset to get him out of trouble. He doesn't appear to be thinking very straight, not that he's portrayed so far as anything other than an American thug who gets off with his gun.

And then you have James Bond, perhaps too cool under fire, taunting Scaramanga with innocent references to his past ("circus act") and behaving just a little too snarky for someone who decides to put himself in an even more dangerous situation. As he is being chauffeured to the real estate cite, he reflects on his choices thus far:
    James Bond was uncomfortably aware that for the past hour he had been driving into limbo, and that his nearest contact was a girl in a brothel thirty miles away. The situation was not reassuring."
Perhaps this can be shrugged off to Bond's only-recent recovery from his brainwashing to make such an impulsive error, but Bond's instincts always come through for him (except when he is amnesiatic and wants to go check out Russia).

After a few bourbons in his hotel suite, Bond gets up early to take an ocean swim. Not to be outdone, he encounters Scaramanga already working out on a trampoline:
    Scaramanga's body gleamed with sweat in the sunshine as he hurled himself high in the air from the stretched canvas and bounded back, sometimes from his knees or his buttocks and sometimes even from his head. It was an impressive exercise in gymnastics.
I'm not so familiar with the 'head bounce' on a trampoline, but that seems to be a wee bit dangerous. After both me have preened and strutted, they reconvene in the lobby, where Scaramanga reveals his plan: He is hosting a weekend for some high-roller gangsters, hoping to entice them into buying stock in the hotel and relieving him of his poor investment.

Of course, it turns out the be a little more than that.  As Bond eavesdrops on the conversation, the group of investors are more of a group of collaborative investors, featuring a thinly-veiled representative from Moscow, who are looking to influence global pricing of such things as sugar.  (E.g., Sugar in the novel is used to purchase arms from Russia by Cuba.  By keeping the prices low, Russia gets more product for the sale.)

Before attending to business, however, the Russian agent lets Scaramanga know who he is dealing with.
"There is a man that is called James Bond that is looking for him in this territory.  This is a man who is from the British Secret Service.  I have no informations or descriptions of this man, but it seems he is highly rated by my superiors.  Mr. Scaramanga, have you heard of this man?"
Scaramanga, having just hired a British stranger, uses his keen insight:
Scaramanga snorted.  "Hell, no!  And should I care?  I eat one of their famous secret agents for breakfast from time to time..."
I can't help but be reminded of Happy Gilmore's exchange between Shooter and Happy:'
Shooter: I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast!
Happy: You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?
Shooter: [Awkward pause]... No!
Later, Scaramanga reveals just what he thinks about Mark Hazard (aka James Bond's cover):
"Just don't you worry your tiny head about the limey, Hal.  He'll be looked after when the weekend's over.  Picked him up in a bordello in a village nearby... For all I know he may be this James Bond man Mr. Hendricks has told us about.  I should worry..."
In betwixt all this, Scaramanga shoots one of the group for not wanting to buy into his mortgage buyout scheme (and blow it for the others).  This is standard Fleming fare.  Note to prospectus collaborators in an underhanded international scheme: do NOT boldly announce your dissent at the meeting.

I also forgot to mention that Bond isn't alone at the estate; Felix Leiter is also on the case, and has already bugged the entire place.

So, to recap, Scaramanga is a physical specimen, a fantastic shot and peerlessly quick on the draw, but also a braggart, clueless, careless, and has unknowingly revealed his plan to Bond and the CIA.  We are at the midway point in the novel, and everything seems to be coming up Milhouse, at which point Bond gets stunningly careless.

The group has a party in the hotel ballroom, but the party isn't very entertaining.  Scaramanga dares Bond to shake things up.
Stupidly, he wanted to assert his personality over this bunch of tough guys who rated him insignificant.  He didn't stop to think that is was bad tactics, that we would be better off being the ineffectual limey.
Bond, flying under the radar as the "limey" from the bordello, proceeds to put on a shooting exhibition to exert his own cock above all the others.  I'm hard-pressed to think of something more foolish to do when you are trying to make sure people don't think you are a British assassin.  No one appears to think anything of it.

This incident becomes more glaring later on, as Mary Goodnight (Bond's "assistant") follows orders from HQ a little too directly and sneaks into his hotel room via the window to tell him Mr. Hendriks is a KGB assassin himself sent to hunt Bond down.  Given this information, it is incredulous that Bond's gun play in the ballroom wouldn't have sent at least someone's radar into overdrive.  Hmm, he's British, check.  Really good with guns, check...

Goodnight, by the way, has an incredible naivety about sex and James Bond.
Her voice was desperate.  "I had to come.  I had to find you somehow.  I got on to you through the girl at that, er, dreadful place [Editor's note: she means the bordello].  I left the car in the trees down the drive and just sniffed about.  There were lights on in some of the rooms and I listened and, er" -- she blushed crimson -- "I gathered you couldn't be in any of them and then I saw the open window..."
It is hilarious to think that she located Bond by finding the one room where sex wasn't happening and deducing he was there.  Naturally!

Mary's clumsy, loud entrance alerts Scaramanga, though, who enters Bond's room through a secret passage to see what is going on.  He owns him dead-to-rights with his Golden Gun in his hand, but Bond and Goodnight throw him off by blustering and showing outrage, since they are engaged to be married.  Further, to allay his suspicions about him being James Bond, he asks how could he have tracked him down to a brothel in the first place.  Scaramanga demures, given the evidence that no one could have tracked him to a brothel, and that Mark Hazard must have been there by coincidence.

Incidentally, James Bond found him at the brothel by hanging out in an airport and stealing a note addressed to Scaramanga that happened to be in an unattended pile of letters on a concourse.  Seriously.

Anyway, Bond again enjoys the fortune of having the dimmest adversary, yet deadliest with a pistol, on file.  One imagines Bond could insert his theme song into a tape player, press play and do a little jig in a tuxedo and Scaramanga would still be unconvinced.  So, wisely, Bond decides not to take advantage of his ridiculous amount of good luck anymore; he sneaks into Scaramanga's room (!) and removes the bullet from the next chamber, so he'll have the drop on Scaramanga.

He further gets the drop on yet another conversation (using the same champagne glass to the ear method) between Hendricks and Scaramanga.  Hendricks confirms without a doubt that Hazard is James Bond, and they conspire a way to kill him so as not to cause suspicion amongst the staff or other guests.  (After all, this is a respectably hotel!)  Bond can't overhear the plans, but he decides to go along with the plans, confident his one-less bullet in the pistol and the I know that they know but they don't know that I know strategy will give him an edge.

During the train ride, Bond's slim advantage is ruined when Scaramanga decides to have a 'yee-haw' moment:
Scaramanga was in ebullient form.  "Hear the train blow, folks!  All aboard!"  There was an anticlimax.  To Bond's dismay he took out his golden pistol, pointed it at the sky, and pressed the trigger.  He hesitated only momentarily and fired again... Scaramanga checked his gun.  He looked thoughtfully at Bond and said, "All right, my friend.  Now then, you get up front with the driver."
Bond smiled happily, "Thanks.  I've always wanted to do that since I was a child.  What fun!"
It's just weird to see Bond playing the clueless dolt for show, but then again, the master criminals don't exactly deserve much more.  It's not long before the climax (?) of the book is upon us, where Scaramanga's master plan is revealed:
The Rasta quickly pushed up the lever and the speed of the train gathered back to twenty miles an hour.  He shrugged.  He glanced at Bond.  He licked his lips wetly.  "Dere's white trash across de line.  Guess mebbe its' some frie' of de boss."

Bond strained his eyes.  Yes!  It was a naked pink body with golden blonde hair!  A girl's body!

Scaramanga's voice boomed against the wind.  "Folks.  Just a little surprise for you all.  Something from the good old Western movies.  There's a girl on the line ahead.  Tied across it.  Take a look.  And you know what?  It's the girl friend of a certain man we've been hearing of called James Bond.  Would you believe it?  And her name's Goodnight, Mary Goodnight.  It sure is a good night for her.  If only that fellow Bond was aboard now, I guess we'd be hearing him holler for mercy."
Of course, Bond doesn't 'holler for mercy', he leaps into action, and a gunfight ensues in the cabin whilst Bond desperately tries to stop the train.

Moment aside, the master plan of Scaramanga appears to have been to kidnap Goodnight and place her on the tracks.  The reason this is done is to, apparently, get Bond to reveal he is Bond, which they have known all along, so they can then have a gunfight.

Scaramanga's plans go as well as you would expect based on their level of incomprehensible stupidity.
Hendriks has his gun out.  Before it could swivel, Bond put a bullet between the man's cold eyes.
Well that didn't go so well for the master KGB assassin.  Scaramanga fares little better, but before there's any sense of direct conflict, Leiter's team takes over.
"Okay, you four guys.  Toss your guns over the side.  Now!  Quick!"  There came the crack of a shot.  "I said quick.  There's Mister Gingerella gone to meet his maker..."
Leiter apparently doesn't have any issue in killing in cold blood, or pretending to not be dirty.
"... Get ready to jump.  The longer you wait, the farther you've got to walk home.  I'm going to stay with these guys for a while and hand them over to the law in Green Island."  He shook his head to show this was a lie.
So, Bond jumps so Leiter can rig the train to explode, killing all the hoods instead of bringing them to justice.  "Wink wink, nudge nudge, I'm going to do some murdery."  How very cheeky.  Fortunately, and playing into the forced situation Fleming wrote himself into to have a final showdown, Scaramanga sees through Leiter's a-hole tactics and jumps before Leiter ditches the train.  Leiter suffers a compound fracture in his leg, but Scaramanga staggers off into the swamp.  Now it's him and Bond, mano-a-mano.

Bond finds the mortally wounded Scaramanga leaning up against a tree, and watches him stab a passing (harmless) snake and begin to skin and eat it raw.  Okayyy.  Bond gets the drop on him and proceeds to have a final grating chat:
"Any messages for anyone, Scaramanga?  Any instructions?  Anyone you want looking after?"
He's already told Scaramanga that he probably shouldn't have tried to arrange the murder of Goodnight with the CIA unknowingly -- the body was just a dummy on the tracks.
Scaramanga laughed his harsh laugh, but carefully.  This time the laugh didn't turn into the red cough.  "Quite the little English gentleman!  Just like I spelled it out.  S'pose you wouldn't like to hand me your gun and leave me to myself for five minutes like in the books?  Well, you're right, boyo!  I'd crawl after you and blast the back of your head off."  The eyes still bored into Bond's with the arrogant superiority, the cold superman quality that had made him the greatest pro gunman in the world--no drinks, no drugs--the impersonal trigger man who killed for money and, by the way he sometimes did it, for the kicks.
Herein Fleming demonstrates one of the fundamental errors of writing that he has fallen into.  He repeatedly says that Scaramanga is the greatest gunman ever, yet, he just lost a close-quarters gunfight with Bond and the CIA.  What Fleming has definitively shown instead of being 'the greatest gunman' is that Scaramanga is abrasive, naive, careless, a poor judge of character, and not a little stupid.  In short, the titular man of the book is a common thug, and unremarkable except for the occasional trick shot of a bird.  In a microcosm of the book, this is why The Man With the Golden Gun fails. 

Bond's reverie for Scaramanga feels entirely unwarranted and tiresome.  Luckily, Scaramanga has no intention of torturing us any longer.  So, he had one more trick up his sleeve -- the old "let me pray and then I'll draw my hidden gun on you" trick which Bond, as this book portrays him as nearly equal in dimwittery, of course falls for:
"Thanks, pal."  Scaramanga's hands went up to his face and covered his eyes.  There came a drone of Latin which went on and on.  Bond stood there in the sunshine, his gun lowered, watching Scaramanga, but at the same time not watching him...
And then the hand leaped behind the head and the tiny golden Derringer roared, and James Bond spun round as if he had taken a right to the jaw and crashed to the ground.
At once Scaramanga was on his feet and moving forward like a swift cat.   He snatched up the discarded knife and held it forward like a tonight of silver flame.
But James Bond twisted like a dying animal on the ground and the iron in his hand crack viciously again and again--five times--and then fell out of his hand onto the black earth as his gun hand went to the right side of his belly and stayed there, clutching at the terrible pain.
Suffice to say, he got 'em.  The final scenes of the story show British officials and M. (in absentia) gushing over Bond's (and Leiter's) "heroics" while they convalesce in Jamaica, recovering from their wounds.  Later, in private, when Bond starts to wax on about Scaramanga as "quite a guy", Leiter keeps it real:
Leiter was unsympathetic.  "That's the way you limeys talk about Rommel and Donitz and Guderian.  Let alone Napoleon.  Once you've beaten them, you make heroes out of them.  Don't make sense to me.  In my book, an enemy's an enemy... Don't be a jerk, James.  You did a good job.  Pest control.  It's got to be done by someone.  Going back to it when you're off the orange juice?"
Felix Leiter jeered at him, "Of course you are, lame-brain.  It's what you were put into the world for.  Pest control, like I said.  All you got to figure out is how to control it better.  The pests'll always be there.  God made dogs.  He also made their fleas.  Don't let it worry your tiny mind.  Right?"  Leiter had seen the sweat on James Bond's forehead.  He limped towards the door and opened it.  He raised a hand briefly.  The two men had never shaken hands in their lives.
He said, "Okay Miss Goodnight.  Tell matron to take him off the danger list.  And tell him to keep away from me for a week or two.  Every time I see him a piece of me gets broken off.  I don't fancy myself as The Vanishing Man."  Again he raised his only hand in Bond's direction and limped out.
That passage there was classic Fleming, perhaps the only redeeming and insightful part of the last three-quarters of the book.  Two "friends", who had never shook hands, acknowledging their place in the world.

Finally, M.'s telegram arrives to propose that Bond be knighted for his work (again, that reports must have been changed from the account we got), but Bond decides against it, not wanting to be a public figure.  Mary Goodnight proposes he stay in her villa for the next three weeks without a chaperone.  Bond's final thoughts end the novel:
At the same time, he knew, deep down, that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him.  It would be like taking "a room with a view."  For James Bond, the same view would always pall.
It's the James Bond that knows he is not meant for nor satisfied with the stable monogamous life forever.  Bond is Fleming's unchecked fantasy id, which could be an entire other dissertation in itself.  But this adventure is over.

1 comment:

Hackett said...

You know, you realy are good at this. Even your descriptions of how mediocre a book is makes one want to read it. And by "one", i mean the total number of readers your reviews reach. Zing! Couldn't build you up too much.