10 June 2012

ON GOLDEN BOND

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

GOLDFINGER
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Written by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn
Premiered 17 September, 1964

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
British secret agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) swims to a drug lab and blows it all to hell, and returns to the woman he has been sexing in whatever tropical hideaway this occurs; she has betrayed him, though, and he only narrowly manages to kill a would-be assassin by electrocuting him with a fan in a bathtub. The first of many Bond pre-title sequences that has essentially no connection with the rest of the movie - the electrocution death is a tiny bit of foreshadowing, but that is absolutely the only thing - this also includes a number of the most iconic things in the character's history: using a duck decoy while he swims, stripping out of his wetsuit to reveal an impeccable white tuxedo, and the first exquisitely awful pun of the franchise, upon seeing his electrocuted enemy: "Shocking. Positively shocking."

I am not about to stake out a claim that such a famous, indeed iconic opening is anything less than a a marvel, though I'd be a liar if I said it was my very favorite. The action itself is a bit on the thin side, is the thing; and in fact, since Goldfinger as a whole is marked by a distinct turn towards humor and away from action, this fits it well, but the whole movie, which gets a chance to breath, does more with this turn than the compact opening sequence can. It's well above-average, let us say, but not in the top rank, despite a handful of choice moments.

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Rating: 4 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
There are few objective truths to be found in ranking the Bond pictures: the best girl, the best action setpiece, the best villain, and of course the best James Bond, are all matters of considerable disagreement. But here is an objective truth for you: "Goldfinger" is the best Bond theme song, and I take no joy in saying that of a song with lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (it is, incidentally, the first Bond theme with singing during its appearance in the opening credits). Admittedly, this has less to do with Newley and Bricusse's rather plain lyrics than with John Barry's slinky music with its mightily raunchy horn section, and even more to do with Shirley Bassey's blow-your-head-apart rendition of the song as though she was screaming Satan himself back into the pits of hell with every lung-shattering note. "GOOOLLLLLD-FIN-GAAARRR!" she bellows in the first moments, and right up until a final note that keeps going at a pitch that no mere mortal could reach, for longer than you or I could daydream about holding a single breath, it is a performance that sets the song and the movie on fire and represents the quintessence of all things that are sonically Bond: seductively cruel '60s jazz that reeks of sex and violence in one protracted explosion of ear-splitting ecstasy. It is perfection and nothing less.

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Rating: 5 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
No sequence could do that song justice, but I have to ask if designer Robert Brownjohn was even trying: it's a re-do of the basic concept of his work on From Russia with Love (images project on a woman's body), only in this case the images are shots from this and the two preceding Bond films, tinted yellow (because "gold", duh). There are a few cute touches - a golf ball rolling along a woman's arm and into her cleavage is so crass as to be charming - but it's all in all just slightly... boring, dare I say? At any rate, it lacks the graphic appeal of the FRWL titles, or the winking sluttiness of the later title sequences that just throw a bunch of naked silhouettes at us, and while I could never call it the worst of them all, I only just hesitate in calling it the most undistinguished.

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Rating: 2 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
A vacationing Bond is informed that his trip to Miami Beach has an ulterior purpose: he must observe the behavior of a certain Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), who has been causing some mischief in Great Britain of late. It seems that the Bank of England has known for some time that Goldfinger, using his legitimate businesses as bullion dealer and jeweler, has been smuggling large quantities of gold out of the country and thereby threatening the stability of the pound by leaving the country's gold reserve in shambles. Bond's mission is to ascertain how Goldfinger accomplishes this and thus give the authorities the ability to arrest the smuggler; but in hardly any time at all, Bond finds that Goldfinger's plot goes much deeper than simply playing havoc with Britain's economy: the rotund madman has a scheme code-named "Operation Grand Slam" that involves bringing all the economies of the Western world to ruin by exploding a dirty nuke inside Fort Knox and thereby turning the gold basis of the United States' economy into so many shiny irradiated paperweights.

I feel that not enough credit is given to Goldfinger for achieving one particularly ignoble record: it was the first Bond movie to have a dated plot. Sure, the Cold War backdrop for the first 27 years of the franchise looks quaint now, but this whole film (ironically, one of the least Cold War-dependent of them all) is predicated on the U.S. economy relying on the gold standard, something that came to an end as soon as 1971.

No matter, it's still saucy enough to work on its own terms, and as the first Bond movie with an emphasis on gaudy comic book plots rather than nuts-and-bolts spying, its altogether satisfying if you don't try to take it on any other terms - the changes to Ian Fleming's novel mainly serving to make the material much sillier than the relatively (only "relatively") straitlaced original, and in the process cementing the Bond Movie as it would come to be refined into, effectively, comic fantasies with some spy thriller elements spackled on the surface, into a right proper formula. It hits a really lovely sweet spot, in fact: just ridiculous enough to be really darn entertaining, and not nearly so ridiculous as to seem absurd.

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Rating: 4.5 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
One of the most iconic figures in Bond's rogues gallery, if only for getting, hands down, the best line ever given to a bad guy in any of these movies (see below). The menacingly chubby Fröbe, his thick German voice overdubbed by Michael Collins (who still, oddly, gives the nominally British character a pronounced German accent), is a really marvelous bad guy, visually distinctive without needing any gimmicks (unless you count the omnipresent yellow in his costumes), vast and imposing when he's doing anything from waving a gun around to looking with reptilian satisfaction at Bond, strapped to the series first-ever easily-escaped death machine - though in this case, it doesn't take some cunning bit of physical ingenuity for Bond to escape, but to simply talk his way out using an abnormally specious argument along the lines of, "if you kill me, I'll be too dead for the plot to carry on". And this is really my only problem with Goldfinger, though I cannot pretend it is a small one: he is stupid far too rarely and in ways that are far too convenient. Plenty of future Bond villains make dumb mistakes in desperation or premature triumph; Goldfinger makes dumb mistakes to advance the plot, such as letting Bond live, or forcing his henchwoman to sleep with Bond, or not putting a bullet in Bond's head any of a half-dozen times after a living secret agent has stopped being even vaguely useful. It's a common ailment, Convenient Dumbness, but it usually accrues to a villain whose heights are less glorious than Fröbe's many moments of having some of the most self-satisfied evil reaction shots that you could imagine being crammed into one movie. If I did not love Goldfinger so much, he couldn't disappoint me so often.

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Rating: 4.5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Invariably, I always think I like Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore more than I do. Partially because Blackman, the first of two Bond Girls to graduate from the jaunty TV spy show The Avengers, is a profoundly delightful actress sexy without being model-gorgeous, and old enough (she remains the record-holder of being the oldest Bond Girl, at 37) to augment her sexuality with intelligence and maturity and a refreshing resistance to Connery's "I will fuck you now" machismo. Partially because the character name is Pussy Galore.

But then I watch the movie, and the hell of it is, she just does not get all that much to do. Having wisely changed the character from being the lesbian head of an all-girl flying circus to simply being an icy Bond-hater, the filmmakers also sucked away the bulk of her character arc, leaving us with a woman who says snippy things, and flies a plane in a few scenes, before having sex with Bond because that is what women in Bond's vicinity do. She's inordinately passive, even for a Bond Girl; appearing right around the halfway mark and frequently vanishing thereafter, she also gets surprisingly little screentime relative to how much she lingers in the public imagination (because of, no doubt, that name).

But still, however little there is of her, and however broken the character is dramatically, there's no arguing with Blackman's authoritative performance, or the palpably glee with which she repeatedly shuts Bond down. I can't stop feeling like I'm adding a phantom half-point on account of wanting to like the character and performance more than I actually do, but so few of the Bond Girls ever fight back in a convincing way, and I suppose its worth praising those that succeed for so much of their screentime.

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Rating: 3.5 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMEN
The man, the myth, the legend: Oddjob, ladies and gentlemen, Goldfinger's mute Korean aide-de-camp, portrayed by Harold Sakata, a fellow who is always grinning with a singularly terrifying half-grin, who seems to loom like a nightmare even though he's not an especially big man, and who wields the single greatest gimmick of any Bond bad guy, a bowler hat with a razor-sharp rim sturdy enough to decapitate a statue and fine enough to kill a hapless secondary Bond Girl without any visible blood.

There's a strong possibility that this henchman is a better-known Bond villain than any of the actual villains in the series, and it's quite impossible for me to consider that a problem, given that there's an even stronger possibility that he's the best of his storied breed. Certainly, it's damned impressive that the character's reliance on a dumb gimmick not only fails to get in the way of his menace, it manages to heighten it; for this we can give much of the credit to Sakata, who has a remarkable way of looking with an eager, hungry expression that says in the clearest words possible, "I am so excited to think about crushing your face with my hands". I hesitate in my enthusiasm only because there's a slightly ugly racial dynamic to the big thuggish mute Asian serving as lackey to the charismatically evil Briton-German; and since I have shaded the villain and the Bond Girl up a hair, I guess the diplomatic thing to do is shade the henchman down.

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Rating: 4.5 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
She appears onscreen just long enough to let Bond seduce her away from an unrewarding job as Goldfinger's arm candy and secret weapon in cheating at gin rummy, but Shirley Eaton's Jill Masterson enters Bond legend for her third scene, as a corpse painted gold and left to suffocate in her own skin (not real science, by the way). And that, coupled with her rather playful flirtation with an unusually charming Connery in their bedroom scene, is enough for me to count her as a far better second-string Bond Girl than her brief screentime would suggest. She also has an avenging sister, Tilly, played by Tania Mallet; since Tilly does not sleep with Bond, her qualifications for this role are dubious, but since she gets all the action scenes and quite a bit more lines, I think it's fair to consider the sisters as two halves of a single entity, and that entity is sexy, self-assured, and tough, and it's only the fact that even thus combined, the Mastersons are barely introduced before they're killed that keeps me from giving them a much higher score.

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Rating: 3.5 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
The fight between Bond and Oddjob in Fort Knox, with a ticking nuke waiting in the wings, is absolutely terrific, one of the best-known fight scenes in the Connery phase of the movies, and deservedly so. It's also the only top-shelf action setpiece in a movie that ramps considerably down on the action after FRWL raised the series so high in that direction after the generally anemic Dr. No; a car chase and shoot-out that's rather sluggishly edited, a gunfight outside Fort Knox that only serves to keep distracting us from the much better fight going on inside, and a final confrontation with Goldfinger that's rushed and kind of silly are the only other points of action in the movie, and at this point in Bond's development, that's just weak. Partially, I suspect, this is because of the direction towards flippancy and away from high stakes thrills that the film as a whole seems to make; but explaining why a thing is does not obviate it from being a problem, and one tremendously well-choreographed fight does not a great action picture make.

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Rating: 2.5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
The film where gadgets finally became a thing; the film where we see the Q Branch Labs, headed by curmudgeonly old Q himself (Desmond Llewelyn), who for the first time ever bitches Bond out for his tendency to ruin all of Q's marvelous playthings. The gadgets themselves, though are quite limited: a homing device that fits into Bond's heel, and an Aston Martin DB5 tricked out with bulletproof glass, an oil slick gun, changeable licence plates (never used), and an ejecting passenger seat that is a brilliant example of how contrived the Q gadgets could often be, serving no obvious purpose other than to facilitate a scene later on. I'd love to know how the budget meeting went: "But you see, sir, if one of our agents manages to have an enemy gunman sitting next to him, but this enemy is for some reason inclined to keep him alive and behind the wheel of a car, of course this ejector seat will be useful!" And that, of course, is why we love Q.

Aye, it's not as lavish a spread as we'll see later on, but cut them some slack; they were still figuring this stuff out at this stage.

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Rating: 3.5 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Ken Adam's return to Bond pictures after a single movie off resulted in a very predictable and very welcome uptick in the opulence of the sets, though his really imaginative work is largely confined to two locales: Goldfinger's supremely '60s lair in Kentucky, with just about every movable object operated by push buttons, and a giant model that rises out of the floor; and Fort Knox. For Knox, which is, by the way, a fucking glorious movie set: inspired more by the idea of the world's largest gold depository than by the thing itself (the filmmakers were denied
access), and a crazy mess of stairs and bars and shining piles of bullion tucked away into all the corners. A better staging area for a thriller's last moments could hardly be imagined, and only the delirious and delightful baroque nonsense that Adam would start to play with in future episodes, when the budgets started rising, keeps me from bumping this one higher.

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Rating: 3.5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Terence Young may have taught Bond how to enjoy the finer things, but Guy Hamilton taught him how to flaunt it. The classiness that defines Bond's after-hours life ramps up considerably in this film, starting with the joke of how perfect his outfit is, fresh out of a wetsuit, and continuing in many tiny ways throughout the rest of the movie: his blithe comment about the temperature of Dom Perignon running fluidly into his snobbishly disdainful comments about those tacky, inelegant upstarts, The Beatles; the way his offhand comments about whisky manage to fully embarrass his boss at a top-secret mission briefing; his bored command of esoteric knowledge about virtually every upscale topic he comes across. And then there is, of course, the fact that he gets to tool around in an Aston Martin, one of the coolest cars of the 1960s. If that weren't enough, this film marks the first time that he orders, in so many words, a "vodka martini, shaken, not stirred". And Connery's increased comfort with the role makes all of this blithe bon vivant living seem as natural to the character as his thuggish efficiency as a
government-owned killing machine.

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Rating: 4.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
When sneaking up behind Jill Masterson to observe how she helps Goldfinger cheat at cards. Tossed-off and demonstrates how much he does not really care who she is or what she's doing, just how she fits into the mission
Forced or Badass? Badass, but only just; it is awfully casual and not so authoritative as in other pictures.

BEST QUIP
BOND: "Do you expect me to talk?"
GOLDFINGER: "No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die."


BEST QUIP CUT FROM THE SCRIPT BY THE CENSORS
BOND: "Who are you?"
PUSSY: "I'm Pussy Galore."
BOND: "I know, but what's your name?"


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
If all my little hints throughout haven't made it clear, let me be direct: Goldfinger is the movie where the James Bond spy thrillers become the James Bond adventure fantasies for once and for all, with everything left to establish about the formula finally getting nailed down. From here on out, the gadgets would become more unlikely, the villains more colorful, the action more physically improbable, the schemes more convoluted, until eventually Chris Walken builds an earthquake machine. But that event is still happily in the future.

I do not know whether this change in Bond's cinematic fortunes came because of director Guy Hamilton, who at any rate keep the tone lighter and the pace faster, and encourages (or, maybe, was too cowed to to discourage) Connery into playing a far jokier James Bond, one whose brutality as displayed in the first two movies - transplanted, largely intact, from the books - has been tamed into something much cheekier and playful. There will always be debates about whether this change was for the better, as long as their are Bond fans; for myself, I am content to acknowledge merely that it happened, and confess that neither Dr. No nor From Russia with Love was my first James Bond movie, and it is largely the unserious, charismatic male fantasy version of Bond that I think of when I imagine the character in his ideal state.

And if we concede that, good or ill, the James Bond movies were now comic action fantasies, at least Goldfinger has the common decency to be an extremely good example of the form - I do not rank it as the series' best or even second-best, though of course many people do and they certainly have a point. There's a very special, and weird, purity about the Bond formula as it is presented here: all the excess is in place but still reined in by some last measure of discipline, perhaps the lingering memory of how rough Bond was in Dr. No, perhaps because it was only with this film's record-setting box office ($3 million in two weeks, an unheard-of pace in 1964) that the Bond movies became considerably expensive, prestigey affairs in which producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman concluded, reasonably, that it was the garishness that gave people a thrill and not the intensity of Connery's performance - which he never abandoned, I should hasten to point out, even if his days of being a "blunt instrument" were now officially over.

At any rate, the film is full of goofy touches that never explode into outright goofiness, a tight, nuanced line that future films would trip over time and time again. A crazy, tricked-out car here; but only a car. A villain who paints his victims gold there; but at least he's just a psychopathic human being, not an unbelievable monster. This might, in fact, be the most well-balanced of all James Bond pictures between being entertainingly gauche on the one hand, while being plausible and tied to the real world on the other. If that's not quite enough to make it the best of the movies, at least it's fairly inexhaustibly fun to watch and re-watch, and that counts for a great deal.


OVERALL SCORE
45.5/60

5 comments:

Colin said...

What, no treatise on how the dead and gilded Jill Masterson is the perfect visual metaphor for the objectification of women of which the Bond franchise itself has so oft been accused? How Oddjob, in applying to her body the layer of golden paint that kills her, plays the role of a sort of anti-Pygmalion, transforming her from a living, thinking person into a literal idol, robbing her of agency and identity even as he enhances her natural physique in much the same way Robert Brownjohn and Maurice Binder reduce the women in their title sequences to anonymous, interchangeable silhouettes?

Tim said...

The phrase "anti-Pygmalion" makes it a little hard for me to tell if you're being serious or not, but at any rate I like what you've come up with, sarcastic or no. The sad truth is that I'm not the keenest reader of symbolism, and anyway, if I don't pace myself with the "Bond films are misogynist" thing, I will not have the energy to get all the way through this marathon.

Colin said...

Sarcastic? Not at all. A tad grandiloquent? I've been known to be. But by all means, continue eschewing the question of Bond's misogyny. I myself have never let that get in the way of me enjoying the franchise, and am with you in preferring the unserious, charismatic male fantasy version of the character.

In fact, I rate this review 5 condescending yet somehow irresistibly charming taps on the ass from a handsome Scot.

Tim said...

Ha, I love it!

redwood said...

I've found a lot of different opinions on this film, some overly positive, others having just been bored by the "60s Bond" and all. However, once the full consensus is taken, this is often the favorite or, as you mention here, the second favorite of many. It was my own favorite for years. Now, seeing it again, then reading your review, all I can say is that no one reviewer has ever been so right on the button as you are here. I agree, for example, that Goldfinger makes a great villain, with Frobe's performance being perfect (I can feel his frustration and annoyance towards Bond throughout the picture). However, as you say, the logic of what he consistently does with Bond makes no sense, whatsoever. I also noticed the car chase with its quick cuts that really take away from any form of intensity. My wife is doing this marathon with me and kind of found the laser scene almost laughable (nevertheless, it works so great still). I realize now that what Guy Hamilton produces in his later three efforts now make all the more sense when seeing his initial Bond film. It's just all a bit silly, but restrains itself enough to make this effort the one Hamilton that actually works decently. I found the duck decoy headpiece at the beginning a bit much from the get-go, as well as the criminals in the meeting room (this time it was I who was laughing at their 1930s James Cagney-like gangster comments). I think the film works well up to when Tilly dies. The tangibility factor begins fading regularly after that (tangibility as in only the suspension of disbelief, of course). However, I do like the finale. The whole thing, in fact, from the gassing of the soldiers on. Considering that this is more, as you say, the "ideal state" of Bond than FRWL, I tend to put these two together (even though FRWL is more a favorite). I prefer this Bond the most, the cinematic Bond, so I can't give either a specifically better review, when it comes to this factor. I'm pretty sure I know, though, which film is my fav .. and it's coming up soon on the list.