Remembering Roger Moore: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (United Artists 1974)

I didn’t realize Sir Roger Moore was 89 years old when I first heard he’d passed away on May 23. But as Mick Jagger once sang, time waits for no one, and Moore’s passing is another sad reminder of our own mortality. It seemed like Roger had been around forever though, from his TV stardom as Simon Templar in THE SAINT (1962-69) though his seven appearances as James Bond, Agent 007.

There’s always been a rift  between fans of original film Bond Sean Connery and fans of Moore’s interpretation. The Connery camp maintains Moore’s Bond movies rely too much on comedy, turning the superspy into a parody of himself. Many point to his second, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, as an example, but I disagree. I think the film strikes a good balance between humor and suspense, with Roger on-target as 007, and the great Christopher Lee (who’d guest starred in Moore’s syndicated 1958 TV series IVANHOE) in great form as the cold-blooded master assassin Francisco Scaramanga.

The prologue takes us to Scaramanga’s island hideaway off the coast of (Red) China. A Chicago-style hit man (gangster vet Marc Lawrence  ) is invited to engage in a deadly battle of wits in Scaramanga’s bizarre fun house, won by the international executioner. A wax figure of Bond let us know who his next target is to be. Roll credits, over the (admittedly lame) title tune warbled by pop singer Lulu.

Now the story proper begins. 007 is called into M’s office and shown a golden bullet etched with his number. It can mean only one thing: ex-KGB assassin Francisco Scaramanga, the man with the golden gun who charges a million dollars a hit, has set his sights on James Bond. This sets up the scene for action, as Bond travels to Beirut (giving the film an excuse for sex & violence in a belly dancer’s dressing room), Macau (where he delivers the famous “My name’s Bond… James Bond” line), Hong Kong (introducing us to Britt Eklund as klutzy assistant Mary Goodnight and Maud Adams, later to portray OCTOPUSSY, as Scaramanga’s mistress Andrea Anders), Bangkok (with a nod to the 70’s chop-sockey martial arts craze featuring Soon Taik-Oh and a pair of kung-fu fighting schoolgirls), and finally to Scaramanga’s island lair, where the two “best in the business” have their final showdown, echoing Welles’s LADY FROM SHANGHAI.

All the traditional Bond elements are in place. Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn, and Lois Maxwell are back as M, Q, and Miss Moneypenny. There’s exotic locales, sexual innuendoes, hi-tech gadgetry, thrilling stunts, and plenty of action. The late Clifton James (who died April 15th this year) is also back from LIVE AND LET DIE as redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper, on vacation in Bangkok and accidentally caught up in a wild car chase (“Who you after this time, boy? Commies?”). Herve Villechaize is on hand as Scaramanga’s diminutive flunky Nick Nack, and long-time screen villain Richard Loo plays ultra-rich businessman Hai Fat, involved in the theft of the Solex Agitator, a super-powerful solar battery that could solve the world’s energy crisis and serves as the movie’s McGuffin.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN is fast and furious fun, and helped bring Christopher Lee out of the sinister shadow of Dracula and into the mainstream. It’s the last of Guy Hamilton’s four Bond films in the director’s chair (GOLDFINGER, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, LIVE AND LET DIE); he and Lewis Gilbert are the only two that directed both Connery and Moore in the role. James Bond may have a License to Kill, but he wasn’t meant to be a dour, brooding character on film (I’m talking to you, Daniel Craig!). The Moore/Bond films have a tongue-in-cheek charm to them, and are fondly remembered as much for their humor as for all the kiss-kiss-bang-bang action. Job well done, 007. And rest in peace, Sir Roger Moore.

RIP Roger Moore (1927-2017)

Number One With A Bullet: Lawrence Tierney in DILLINGER (Monogram 1945)

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Poverty Row Monogram Studios found themselves with a huge hit on their hands when they released DILLINGER, making a star out of an obscure actor named Lawrence Tierney in the process. This King Brothers production brought the gangster movie back in big way, with Tierney’s ferocious performance turning him into a film noir icon. DILLINGER burst the Kings out of the B-movie bracket, and gave the little studio its first major Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

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The saga of bank robber John Dillinger should be familiar to most of you through its myriad film portrayals, so let’s skip the story and go straight to Tierney. Though the film bills him as “Introducing Lawrence Tierney”, the RKO contract player had been in films a couple years playing bit parts in movies like GHOST SHIP and BACK TO BATAAN when his home studio loaned him out to the Kings. The New York-born actor took the part and ran away with it, making Dillinger an animalistic, ruthless psychopath who lets no one and nothing stand in his way. Tierney’s bone-chillingly scary throughout, whether slicing up a waiter who once slighted him with a broken beer mug, or picking up an axe when he spies one of his mob trying to take it on the lam. Most of the violence takes place offscreen, but Tierney’s brutish presence leaves the viewer no doubt he’s going to go through with it. After he’s captured once, Tierney utters the immortal line, “No tank town jail can hold me, I’ll be out before the month”, and you believe him. Cold, cruel, and calculating, Lawrence Tierney’s John Dillinger sits high in the pantheon of great movie villains.

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Tierney’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, rare for a Monogram picture. Anne Jeffreys also came over from RKO to play Helen, Dillinger’s moll and the infamous ‘Lady in Red’ (in fact, the whole movie has that RKO noir feel to it). Miss Jeffreys, usually associated with lighter fare, here is as hard-boiled a dame as there is, and was a good pairing with Tierney. I’m happy to report the future star of TV’s TOPPER is still alve and well at age 93, one of the last of the old-time greats still around with us (oh, how I’d love to interview her!). Dillinger’s gang of crooks consists of rock-solid veterans, chief among them Edmond Lowe as Specs, Dillinger’s cell mate and crime mentor who gets a bullet in the gut when his betrayal is discovered. Eduardo Ciannelli takes the role of Marco, acne-scarred Marc Lawrence is Doc, and everybody’s favorite slimeball Elisha Cook Jr.  rounds out the crew as Kirk. Other Familiar Faces are Victor Kilian, Ralph Lewis, Lou Lubin , George McKay, Dewey Robinson, Ludwig Stossel, Ernest Whitman, and Constance Worth.

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This being a Monogram movie, budget cuts are expected. The robbery scene, where the gang uses smoke bombs to heist an armored car, was lifted from Fritz Lang’s 1937 YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (again, that RKO connection). Footage from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon GALLOPIN’ ROMANCE also appears when Dillinger and Helen make their ill-fated visit to the Biograph Theater, as does audio from MGM’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, the actual film Dillinger went to see before his demise. Director Max Nosseck was one of the many German refugees plying their trade in Hollywood, and he keeps things economical, aided immensely by Cinematographer Jackson Rose. Nosseck would again direct Tierney in a pair of tough films, THE HOODLUM and KILL OR BE KILLED.

Philip Yordan’s uncompromising screenplay was Oscar nominated, but lost out to an obscure Swiss film I’ve never even heard of titled MARIE-LOUISE. Yordan felt he should have won, and I don’t blame him. His compact, concrete-hard script is raw and edgy, a blueprint for gangster and noir films to come. I suppose Monogram chief Steve Broidy was just happy to be mentioned in the conversation with the larger studios, and Yordan would finally get his due in 1954 for the Western BROKEN LANCE. He had uncredited help on DILLINGER from his friend, director William Castle, for whom he’d written the excellent “B” WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Philip Yordan’s resume includes ANNA LUCASTA, DETECTIVE STORY, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last film), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, KING OF KINGS, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and CAPTAIN APACHE among many, many others.

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There seems to be a debate among film buffs (like with PHANTOM LADY ) about whether DILLINGER classifies as film noir or is strictly in the gangster category. I fall squarely in the noir camp, as it has all the elements of a classic noir: the protagonist heading toward a downward spiral, the femme fatale who betrays him, shadowy cinematography, hard-bitten dialog, and sudden outbursts of unexpected violence. No matter which side you’re on, I can assure you DILLINGER is a classic example of how to make a low-budget film work that you’ll enjoy watching over and over again.

Halloween Havoc!: Abbott & Costello in HOLD THAT GHOST (Universal 1941)

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Before they met Frankenstein, The Mummy, or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first foray into scary territory in 1941’s HOLD THAT GHOST. This was the boys’ third released film that year, and one of the team’s all-around best. Bud and Lou are two relief waiters at a swanky nightclub (is there any other kind in theses 40s flicks?). Ted Lewis (“Is everybody happy?”) and his orchestra provide the entertainment, along with singing sensations The Andrews Sisters. Of course the boys get fired because of Lou’s bumbling, and return to their regular jobs as gas pump jockeys. Along comes gangster Moose Matson, and clumsy Lou accidentally fires a gun he finds in Matson’s back seat. This gets the cops attention, and they chase down Matson with Bud and Lou in tow. Matson is killed by the police and, according to his will, the boys (being “the last people with me when I die”)  inherit his roadhouse, the Forrester’s Club.

Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.
Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.

Crooked lawyer Bannister and his associate Charlie Smith are trying to get ahold of Matson’s hidden loot. They set Bud and Lou up with a ride from a disreputable bus service. But the greedy driver books some other fares,including professional radio “screamer” Camille Brewster, pretty young Norma Lind, and nerdy scientist Dr. Jackson. The driver strands them all at the Forrester’s Club, a spooky, cobweb-infested, rundown hotel. That’s when the fun begins, as they encounter dead bodies, hidden rooms, clutching hands, and the usual things one finds in “old, dark house” movies. The boys end up finding the hidden money and chase off the villians. Dr. Jackson discovers the waters at the roadhouse have “miraculous therapeutic powers”, and the duo turn the old place into their own swanky nightclub, complete with Ted Lewis and company. The Andrews Sisters swing out to their hit “Aurora” and ‘everybody’s happy’ at the end.

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Abbott and Costello were at their peak in this entry, and their incredible wordplay still astounds me. I especially enjoyed the “figure of speech” routine, aided by funny girl Joan Davis (Camille). Davis, a veteran of radio and vaudeville, more then holds her own with Lou in the slapstick department, almost stealing the film. Their comic dance sequence is hysterical, as is the old “moving candle” routine (later reprised in ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, on top of Dracula’s coffin). Joan Davis went on to star in the early 50s television sitcom I MARRIED JOAN, and passed away in 1961.

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A Universal cast is worth repeating, and this film’s no exception. The studio’s resident “Scream Queen” Evelyn Ankers plays Norma, and shows a comedic side not usually seen in her fright films. Richard Carlson (Dr. Jackson) was just beginning his picture career, which would take him to sci-fi fame in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and It Came From Outer Space. Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, Marc Lawrence, Milton Parsons, and Thurston Hall all add to the fun. The animated title sequence may (or may not) be by “Woody Woodpecker” creator Walter Lantz (I can’t find any info on this….does anyone out there know?). HOLD THAT GHOST holds its own in the spooky deserted house creepstakes and it’s a funny showcase for stars Abbott & Costello and comedienne Joan Davis. Watch it with the kids this Halloween!!

And now here’s a link to The Andrews Sisters singing their hit song “Aurora”!!

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