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Non-Review Review: Goldfinger

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

Even though it was the third movie in an already iconic and hugely successful franchise, I think that Goldfinger is perhaps the film most responsibly for defining the shape of the archetypical Bond film we’ve been watching for fifty years now. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dr. No and From Russia With Love, but this film defined what an audience could expect from a Bond film. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s confident and it’s flamboyant. It’s also a wonderfully fun cinematic experience which manages to be consistently entertaining but never veering too far into the realm of the ridiculous.

A Golden Girl…

One need only consider how iconic Oddjob and his lethal bowler hat have become in the years since – he’s arguably the most recognisable secondary character in the entire franchise (tied perhaps with Jaws). Silent, deadly and stoic, the character his become the standard against which most novelty-themed henchmen will be judged – despite only speaking in clipped Korean over the course of the movie. That’s a solid indication of how deeply this film engrained the template for the future Bond movies (and arguably the spy genre as a whole).

However, it’s more than that. To focus on Oddjob is to do a disservice to Gert Fröbe’s sensational Auric Goldfinger. Fröbe didn’t speak a word of English when cast, and the fact that it’s so difficult to tell that his voice has been dubbed is a credit both to Fröbe and the voice-over artist Michael Collins. Goldfinger sets the mold for all future Bond villains – his flamboyance and his overconfidence, coupled with the scenery-chewing performance, defined the nature of the threats that Bond would face for the next couple of decades.

Do you think he’s over-compensating for something?

“Man has climbed Mount Everest,” he explains to an assembled group of mobsters between mouthfuls of the set. “Gone to the bottom of the ocean. He has fired rockets at the Moon. Split the atom. Achieved miracles in every field of human endeavour… except crime!” Every Bond villain that followed – from Blofeld to Elliot Carver – would be measured against Goldfinger and his insane schemes.

Special mention must be made to that cold opening, which is both the first to feature Bond himself (although the previous film featured the death of a man wearing a Bond mask). It is, like many of the ones that would follow, completely unrelated to the plot – it sees Bond foiling a revolutionary army funding itself off the heroin trade – and his subsequent betrayal by an unnamed young lady.

I take my hat off to Oddjob…

It is, like the rest of the film, effortlessly cool, giving us that image of Bond stripping out of a wetsuit into a dry white tuxedo – but it’s completely disconnected from the rest of the plot. It’s really the first example of its kind in the franchise, existing solely to define Bond as effortlessly badass – as if we needed to be reminded of that fact. It’s the type of character defining opening that a lot of subsequent films would attempt to emulate.

There are countless over aspects of the production which lay the blueprints for what would follow. From the punny name for the Bond girl (“I must be dreaming,” Bond famously utters on being introduced to Pussy Galore) through to that iconic theme song (“he loves only gold!!!”), you can see these ideas growing and developing. There’s even (not only one but) two supporting Bond girls that James can’t protect.

Eyes in the sky…

Although Q appeared in the previous film, this is our first look at “Q Branch.” Obviously the gadgets caught on, because by the time of Thunderball, Bond was riding around on a jetpack. This is also the point where, for you car fans here, Bond switches to his Aston Martin. When Bond wonders about his beloved Bentley, he’s essentially told that he needs to quit living in the past – that was so two movies ago. “It’s had its day, I’m afraid,” Q informs the agent. “But it’s never let me down,” Bond protests. The sponsors’ M’s orders, 007,” Q replies.

This movie so skilfully defined the template of the series that would follow. The reason is because it was ridiculously successful – recouping its budget in record time, despite costing the combined budget of the two previous films. It works because it’s a very well-made film which just seems effortlessly cool. It’s brisk, snazzy and a little sexy. Bond here isn’t so much a member of British intelligence as he is a suave and sophisticated action hero. In fact, it seems the character isn’t really interested in being a boring old Cold War spy – he does what he damn-well wants, much more than what he’s told. “You’ve hardly distinguished yourself, have you?” M admonishes him after one of his diversions ends with a dead body. “Sir, I’m aware of my shortcomings,” Bond apologises.

I’m not sure what puns I can get away with…

This isn’t a story about missing Soviet decoders or international plots – it’s a movie about gold. It’s practically a caper film, as distinct from the two earlier examples. Mobsters stand in for the agents of nebulously evil organisation SPECTRE and – although it’s hinted that there are some interested international parties involved in Goldfinger’s plots – the big bad guy is engaged in his own little corporate enterprise. There’s no mention of Russians or the Iron Curtain, the plot veers comfortably into pure escapism. If you ask me, that’s why it works so well. There’s just something sexy and stylish about gold – we might not share Goldfinger’s obsession with it, but it’s both timeless and classic.

It’s interesting to note how much of an establishment figure Bond is here. He’s the very definition of cool, but seems an odd character to be a cultural icon in the counter-culture era of the sixties. Despite his relatively liberal sexual politics, Bond seems almost conservative and old world – with his sharp suits and carefully considered opinions on wine. To serve champagne at room temperate is “as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs” – a statement hilarious in hindsight given that Paul McCartney would record the theme to Live and Let Die.

Painting the town gold…

Indeed, watching the film now, it’s hard to skim over the movie’s (and the character’s) somewhat casual sexism. At the pool, Bond dismissed his companion while he makes “man talk” with Felix – being sure to send her on her way with a customary ass slap. After using her keys to break into Goldfinger’s room, Bond patronisingly thanks the maid, “You’re very sweet.” He’s very condescendingly warns Pussy about Oddjob, “You know, he kills little girls like you.”

It has been argued that Goldfinger reflects Ian Fleming struggling with the women’s lib movement of the time. I think you can see that in the film. Pussy Galore, for example, is the first truly indispensable Bond girl. Ursula Andress was there for eye candy in Dr. No, while the fake defector in From Russia With Love was a living macguffin. Here, Pussy’s defection makes it possible for Bond to beat Goldfinger. In the novel, Fleming cast Pussy as a lesbian, who was “turned” by Bond. That facet to her character is missing from the film, although you could argue it’s implied when she advises Bond, “You can turn off the charm, I’m immune.”

“I must be dreaming…”

Even Jill’s sister, who is ultimately quite pointless as a character, is shown to be more proactive in seeking to avenge her lost sibling. Of course, this turns out to be a bit of a double-edged sword. When she almost shoots in the Alps, she explains she was aiming for Goldfinger. Bond deadpans, “Well, you’re a lousy shot.” Fleming seems to suggest that women simply aren’t cut out for this type of work, at least based on what we see here.

Pussy is no more effective than Tilly. Bond patronises Pussy when she pulls a gun on him on the plane. “Pussy,” he remarks in the most condescending tone possible, “you know a lot more about planes than guns. That’s a Smith & Wesson… If you fire this close, the bullet will pass through me and the fuselage like a blowtorch through butter. The cabin will depressurise and we’ll be sucked into outer space together.”

Bond takes his Knox…

Later on, he practically forces himself on Pussy, which is hinted to be the very thing that leads Pussy to develop a conscience. Throughout the film, Bond has a strange fascination with asking beautiful women if they’re sleeping with Goldfinger – it would be slightly pervy if it wasn’t for the sophisticated accent. I’m reminded of that Family Guy sketch where Sean Connery’s Bond declares “fifty ‘no’s and ‘yes’ is a ‘yes’.” This movie feels a little like that, and not necessarily in a good way. It’s nice that Thunderball would make a point to subvert the magical abilities of Sean Connery’s lovemaking.

On the other hand, the movie itself is one of the better examples of a fairly straight-forward Bond plot. In the book, Goldfinger’s plot (a simple plan to “knock off Fort Knox”) is downright ridiculous – how the hell do you get the gold out of there? It weighs far more than you think. Here it’s replaced with a fiendishly ingenious plan to irradiate the gold, rendering it completely useless and thus making his own supplies far more valuable. Yes, it’s ridiculous – but it’s far more clever than the vast majority of Bond villain plots, and a significant improvement on Ian Fleming’s original plot.

Bricking it…

There’s also the first sense of the series’ inflated sense of British importance on the global stage, something that would become a calling card of the series in the years to come. With Bond operating in the United States for the first time in the series, it’s amazing how the Americans instinctively take their cues from British intelligence. When the CIA contemplate extracting James, M advises, “Don’t charge in there and spoil anything on him. He’s evidently well on top at the moment.” And that’s apparently all the Americans need to hear. It’s something that would become a hallmark of the series, reaching its pinnacle in Tommorrow Never Dies before being subverted in Quantum of Solace.

However, try not to think too hard about the movie. Despite the engaging sense of humour, the film is riddled with plot holes. The death of Jill Masterson makes Bond look incompetent and shortsighted – did he think Goldfinger would just be happy to be humiliated like that or was he simply indifferent to the fate of the young lady after he’d got what he wanted? Why does Goldfinger keep Bond so damn close to him? Either he’s out of contact with his bosses at MI6 and they’ll send a replacement, or he’s in contact which makes him a risk to keep so close to the operation? Either Bond has already told them about Operation: Grand Slam or he hasn’t, surely?

If that laser reaches its target, Bond won’t be quite the man he used to be…

And why the hell does Goldfinger need to explain his plot to a bunch of gangsters he’s going to kill after his presentation? Rigging that room for the briefing (as cool as it looks) seems expensive for a presentation to a bunch of dead men walking. Did Goldfinger simply decide to kill them after he’d briefed them? Or had he already installed all the helpful diagrams and maps and hated to see them go to waste?

These questions are relatively minor, and are easy enough to go along with. I mean, we’re dealing with a spy who drives an Aston Martin with an ejector seat, so perhaps logic takes a backseat. The direction by Guy Hamilton is smooth and stylish, offering any number of well-handled sequences. Check out, for example, that famous golf game. Or the scene with Bond watching Goldfinger while being watched himself up the side of a mountain. Or the chase sequence through Goldfinger’s factory, with an inconveniently place mirror.

It’s all going according to plan…

There’s a reason that Goldfinger set out the pattern for the later Bond movies to emulate. It’s a charming little tale, well told. It drips with style and sophisticated, executed with practised easy. Connery is perhaps at his peak here – he is Bond. It’s a great movie. Pure gold.

We’ve got full reviews of all of Sean Connery’s Bond films, if you want to check ’em out:

The following blogs have reviews of Goldfinger up as part of James Bond January:

7 Responses

  1. Love how you picked up on the massive arse slap… probably one of my favourite parts of this film, if only because we’ll never see that again!

    I also liked Goldfinger’s moving upholstery. Got to get me some of that!

    • The man has style. Can you imagine the media outrage if that “man talk” bit made it into a movie today?

  2. A great review! Just one tiny thing: Not to be nit-picky, but it’s “Fröbe” (= Froebe), not “Forbe”. He dubbed himself in the German Version of the film, if you’re interested in his original voice.
    By the way, in the German Sync-Versions the same actor spoke Connery and Lazenby, as if they tried to disimular the change. Gert Günther Hoffmann also was the voice of William Shatner, Lex Barker Rock Hudson and others, so most movie heroes of the Sixties sounded the same in Germany.

    • Good spot! Corrected. And thanks for the trivia. It must be weird to have so many iconic (and distinct) sixties heroes sounding the same but looking so different.

  3. One note about Goldfinger’s voice, Frobe’s natural voice does make an appearance in two places. One, just as Bond is sneaking under the model of Fort Knox, the voice is Frobe’s real voice and two, his yell of “Except crime” is his real voice too.

  4. It’s subtle but the plan he gives to the gangsters in his presentation is actually fake. This speaks to what makes Goldfinger such a great character, he’s incredibly clever, but he needs an outlet to gloat but at the same time he tries keeps his cards close to his chest. Few villains have such depth to them. Just watch the scene as Bond realizes Goldfinger’s real plan, Goldfinger doesn’t tell him outright, only dropping hints so that Bond can figure out the genius of the plan for himself. The expression on his face is positively gleeful. And despite having full confidence in his plan, the moment something goes wrong, he reacts instantaneously, sealing the vault and revealing a disguise under his coat (paralleling Bond from the intro) and he actually escapes from the trap the army set for him. This is what made him such a great villain, his plan is clever and he’s quick on the uptake, which makes him a real threat to the hero, something that the Austin Powers parody of him completely missed.

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