Sunday, December 28, 2008

James Bond review: Goldfinger (1964)

(For my other Bond reviews, and my apologia for the project, see the tags on the right.)

CUT TO THE CHASE: This is where they perfect the formula. You could make an argument for that making this the best of the Bonds, by definition. Again, I wouldn’t quarrel with that.

BOND, JAMES BOND: Let’s just say that in 1964, the producers knew exactly what James Bond was all about. The secret is in the laser scene, and what precisely is being threatened there. When the producers remember this, and aren’t ashamed of it, Bond stands tall. When they forget it, or find the whole thing a bit old-fashioned and, well, embarrassing, Bond, er, wilts.

In Goldfinger, they know what’s what. The plot hinges on it. Why else do you think Miss Galore changes her, shall we say, allegiance?

What Makes Bond Bond: Even when he’s being held prisoner he’s so cool that the CIA guys watching him think he has the situation “well in hand.” Also, he can dismantle an atomic bomb.

What makes Sean Connery Sean Connery: the way he pronounces Miss Galore’s first name.

BAD GUYS: To repeat: Goldfinger is where they perfect the formula. For the first time they clearly divide the opposition into Evil Genius (Goldfinger) and Henchman (Oddjob). This allows Bond to have a Worthy Adversary (alright, I’ll knock it off with the caps already), somebody who can match him witticism for witticism, epicureanism for epicureanism, without having to get his hands dirty with actual physical violence. That aspect of the villain’s duties is left, like a distasteful chore, to a hired man.

This allows for an instructive contrast with Bond, of course, who – as we’re reminded each time he defeats a henchman, and after that his evil genius – has both brains and brawn. The evil genius subcontracts out part of his manhood: Bond does not.

It helps, here, that Gert Frobe is one of the great Bond villains. Even if his dialogue is looped. The offhanded way he carries himself, even as he delivers the two most boffo lines given to any villain in the entire series (hint: they’re both in the laser scene). The way he manages to look menacing even in that ridiculous golf outfit.

And it also helps that Oddjob is the greatest, bar none, of the Bond henchmen. The secret? No, it’s not his silence (although the fact that he simply smiles when he crushes the golf ball in his hand makes the scene work better than any quip could have). It’s not even his razor-brimmed bowler (although, yes, that’s damned close). It’s the fact that he always dresses in tails. The sight of men in impeccably tailored suits doing acts of great violence is one of the things that gives the series its unique character. I’ll have occasion to say this again before the series is through…

Goldfinger and Oddjob are the eternal template for Bond villainy. In large measure, subsequent films will succeed or fail based on how well they rise to the challenge of making us forget, for a couple of hours, Messrs. Frobe and Sakata.

GRATUITOUS SEX: “My name is Pussy Galore.”

I’m tempted to let those five words speak for themselves, because my, do they say a lot. But as with certain scenes in the first two Bond movies, it’s worth taking a step back and realizing how daring she must have been for 1964. Galore, until Bond takes her for a roll in the hay, plays for the other team. “You can turn off the charm – I’m immune.” Now, it’s worth noting that we do not, cannot, condone the fact that Bond takes Ms. Galore’s stance as a challenge, nor do we approve of the tactics by which he finally breaches her defenses. Judi Dench’s M is right, see, when she calls Bond a misogynist dinosaur. We have no argument with that. We have no argument at all. All we can say is, we’re not immune.

Elsewhere in the Department of Gratuitous Sex we might observe that here, too, they begin to settle into the formula. They lose Sylvia Trench: there shall be no recurring love interests for 007. This makes room for the Masterson sisters, as well as the dancer in the pre-title sequence. The girl in gold paint is an iconic image, of course, one that transcends the series; the way Bond catches the first blow in the pretitle sequence is another defining moment for 007’s relationship with women.

We’re not immune.

Total GS score for this one, by the way: 2, with a near miss in the pretitle sequence.

AND VIOLENCE: The pretitle sequence here perfects the formula. The Bond Pretitle Sequence should start the film off with a bang (think Thunderball), feature an innovative fight scene (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) or stunt (The Spy Who Loved Me), take place in an Exotic Locale that the film does not revisit afterward (The World Is Not Enough), and bear only the most tenuous relationship to the main plot (For Your Eyes Only). All of these rules can be broken, but when they are it’s usually in order to call attention to the fact that they're being broken, so that you know you’re in a Different Kind of Bond Movie (Die Another Day; Quantum of Solace). All the requirements are met here for the first time. And it’s a pip of a sequence too - if you can forgive the seagull. Only Sean Connery could come close to pulling that off.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Our first visit to Q Section: here, too, we finally arrive at the formula. Bond visits Q in his lair and sees several unrelated gadgets/gags before Q introduces him to his new car/gun/watch/cellphone. To be honest this could and would get out of hand, but here it works. It helps that the gadget here is the definitive Bond car, that gray Aston-Martin. Not all Bond movies will have a cool car, but a cool car is every bit as important to the Bond image as a cool gun. And this movie knows why: it’s to make up for his “slight inferiority complex,” right? Now, where was I?

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: My one real qualm with this movie is that it spends so much time in America. I’ve never been able to figure out if they were trying to kiss up to American audiences by showing them Bond in their own country, or trying to appeal to audiences in Britain and elsewhere for whom Florida and Kentucky were exotic locales. Either way, it doesn’t ruin this movie. But Bond should go to glamorous places, as a rule. And KFC should never appear in a Bond movie.

ETC.: Shirley Bassey’s title song, like so much else about this movie, both establishes the formula and perfects it: jazz-inflected pop song sung with panache by a woman with a sexy voice, with lyrics that address either Bond or the villain. Or both; in the songs, I suspect there’s really no distinction. If the villain is worthy of Bond, it’s because he mirrors Bond in some fundamental way, and since the songs are about glamor and power and desire, in the end it doesn’t make all that much difference if Shirley’s lusting for James or Auric or both, or fearing either or both: it's all the same thing… Classic title sequence; again, it’s not Maurice Binder, and it’s his loss, because this is probably the defining title sequence for the series, with the camera’s eye oozing over that golden girl… Felix Leiter returns, and it’s not Jack Lord, and that’s a problem… I love how Goldfinger seems to have constructed an entire room in his Kentucky hideout, complete with mechanized floors and walls and scale model of Fort Knox, just so he can show it to his cronies for five minutes. Like, a photo wouldn’t do?


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