When it comes to Bond films, ‘Goldfinger’ is not all that glitters

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Today — Sept. 17, 2014 — marks the 50th anniversary of Goldfinger’s world premiere at London’s Odeon Leicester Square cinema. The third film in the series debuted at the perfect moment, just as Bondmania hit a fevered pitch. Goldfinger was an instant phenomenon, guaranteeing that Ian Fleming’s 007 would star in movies for many more years.

The 50th anniversary of Goldfinger arrives with the usual round of the entertainment press hailing it the best James Bond movie ever, which always sets my teeth on edge. Star Trek fans, imagine if the media kept telling you the best film in your series was Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Star Wars fans, imagine if the media kept telling you the best Star Wars movie was Return of the Jedi. That’s what it’s like for Bond fans. Goldfinger is undoubtedly one of the best James Bond movies — it’s in the top five — but it’s not the best. From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale are all superior Bond movies. And — yes, I’ll say it — so is The Spy Who Loved Me.

It would be more accurate to call Goldfinger the most important James Bond movie. Its success set the template for the rest of the series. New director Guy Hamilton stepped in, favoring the fantastic and more obvious comedy over the sophisticated humor director Terence Young brought to From Russia With Love. Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who would bring broader jokes to the series in the early 1970s, once commented that Goldfinger is the movie where the Bond films became “Disney for adults.” He pinpointed the moment that changed the series’ direction as Bond pressing the button that activated the Aston Martin DB5’s ejector seat. I would argue the moment comes earlier, right at the beginning of the movie as a scuba-diving Bond emerges from black water wearing a pigeon on his head. I imagine this was supposed to be a duck, but it looks like a pigeon.

Goldfinger is the entry where the elements we still consider the traditional components of a Bond movie all came together in one glittering, irresistible package: the women, the villains, the exotic locations, the gadgets, Ken Adam’s almost surrealistic sets and the sultry wah-wahs of John Barry’s music. Shirley Bassey’s theme song remains so iconic that nearly every Bond theme since 1989 has imitated it (it took Adele’s Skyfall to finally pull off the proper homage).

The silver, weapons-packed Aston Martin DB5 remains the height of Bond’s gadgetry. Significantly, Goldfinger markes the first time Desmond Llewelyn’s character is identified as Q. Hamilton’s instructions to Llewelyn would be among his most important contributions to the series. Llewelyn’s instinct was to be deferential to 007, but Hamilton told Llewelyn to treat Bond as a hateful annoyance, the cavalier field agent who destroys Q’s precious equipment.

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One superlative I will gladly hand Goldfinger is its rogues gallery. As the megalomaniac Auric Goldfinger, German actor Gert Frobe is still the best Bond villain after 50 years. He doesn’t cackle or leer; he considers himself a businessman and conducts himself as such. His manservant Oddjob (played by professional wrestler Harold Sakata) is still the model of the sinister, invulnerable henchman. His smirk as he taunts Bond to get up and keep fighting during their battle in Fort Knox is chilling.

So if I admire Goldfinger for its historic impact on the Bond series, why don’t I consider it the best film? The second half of the movie, basically.

The first half is just about perfect, right up to that tense scene with the laser and the immortal exchange “Do you expect me to talk?”/”No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” The scene ends with Bond bluffing his way out of his castration and being knocked unconscious, which leads to the great problem with everything that follows: for the second half of the movie, Bond is Goldfinger’s prisoner.

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Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Richard Dehn struggled with this when they adapted Ian Fleming’s novel, which peters out in the third act. In many ways the screenwriters improve upon the book. Detonating an atomic bomb in Fort Knox is a far more original and fiendish scheme than robbing the place (in one of the movie’s more amusing in-jokes, Bond details the improbability of robbing America’s gold depository).

The screenwriters also are more ruthless with supporting characters. Fleming allowed Tilly Masterson and the American gangsters to linger until the Fort Knox raid, but the screenwriters kill them off once they’ve served their purposes (although this adds an absurdity to the film as Goldfinger elaborately explains his plot to the gangsters even though he plans to kill them as soon as he leaves the room).

In the novel Fleming builds to a confrontation between Bond and Oddjob that never comes. The film adds that terrific brawl in the depths of Fort Knox that defined movie fight scenes for years to come and remains among the best in the 007 series.

But the screenwriters knew that Bond’s captivity in the second half of the film put them in a bind, and though they deal with the problem as well as anyone could have (certainly better than Fleming did) they didn’t entirely lick it. Bond is a mostly passive character in the second half of the film, handcuffed while the action takes place. Only indirectly does he save the day, and he’s not the one who disarms the ticking atom bomb. That honor goes to an American scientist who makes his first appearance only minutes earlier and doesn’t even get a name.

imageWhenever I hear someone make the knee-jerk pronouncement that Goldfinger is the best Bond movie, I wonder how recently they’ve seen it. Several moments of the film haven’t aged well. Some of it comes across as embarrassing 1960s kitsch, particularly the scene where Pussy Galore’s female pilots climb out of their planes and prance across the airfield in their skin-tight catsuits, each woman seemingly held aloft by a gravity-defying bosom. The salacious brass notes that John Barry employs to score the moment would be at home in a burlesque house.

Much more troubling is the scene in the barn where Bond “seduces” Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) after a few judo throws. Today it is difficult to consider this act as anything other than rape, even though Blackman relents just as the scene ends. I’m not going to turn this into a condemnation of Bond films as misogynist, because this sort of male domination fantasy was common to all sorts of movies. A far more disturbing example can be found in another Connery film of the era, Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. But watching it today, the barn scene in Goldfinger is uncomfortable viewing to say the least, especially when Bond later reflects that forcing himself on Pussy somehow “appealed to her maternal instincts.”

The sequence that most hurts Goldfinger — and I sometimes wonder if it looked just as stupid in 1964 as it does today — comes at the beginning of the Fort Knox raid. The nerve gas’ effectiveness is demonstrated by wave after wave of American soldiers falling down as if a puppeteer cut all their strings at once.

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The soldiers in these scenes were actual U.S. servicemen acting as extras and instructed to fall down when Hamilton blew a whistle. They come across as a bunch of amateurs playing a children’s game. We see it again and again, and it looks ridiculous every time, like something out of the Keystone Kops. Whenever I have watched Goldfinger with an audience, people crack up at this point. It absolutely kills the mood of the climax.

There must have been a better way to illustrate the nerve gas. It would have been more effective, I think, to show the planes fly overhead and then slowly pan down to reveal a few people toppling to the ground while most soldiers have already fallen. They struggle to get up, then one by one give up and lose consciousness. The film requires something haunting like this instead of the unintended comedy that mars the ending. You may want to argue that the nerve gas was switched and the soldiers were in fact faking the loss of consciousness, but it still looks stupid.

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Honestly, my biggest gripe about Goldfinger is the soldiers falling down. This is an instance of terrible directorial judgment in an otherwise great film. And for all my carping over the last few paragraphs, I do regard Goldfinger as a great film and one of my favorite Bonds. I have enjoyed watching it many times, and will enjoy watching it many more times to come. It deserves to be celebrated this year and every year. It just chafes me that so many people assume it’s the best James Bond movie when it’s not even Sean Connery’s best. That would be From Russia With Love. Connery himself would tell you that.

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