Tuesday, April 17, 2012

One Oddjob And One Pretty Pussy. Goldfinger: A Review


GOLDFINGER

Please visit the James Bond Film Retrospective for all the Bond film reviews.

In many ways, Goldfinger is THE definitive James Bond film.  The two previous Bond films, Dr. No and From Russia With Love, were strong films mixing danger with a touch of romance.  However, Goldfinger, the third Bond film, is the film that set the standard for how all future Bond films would have: the opening title song, the larger-than-life villain, the outrageous scheme, the gadgets and Q, the menacing henchman, and the beauty with a provocative name.  All the elements into what people think of as a "Bond film" came together in Goldfinger, so much so that any parody or spoof (even future 'homages') will echo back to this particular film.

After blowing up a drugs plant, MI6 agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) is enjoying a few days rest in Miami Beach until told that he is now to investigate one Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).  The British suspect he may be smuggling gold, and 007 is suppose to be finding evidence of that.  What Bond finds is a beautiful woman, one Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton).  After Bond finds Goldfinger cheating at cards, he takes advantage of Goldfinger's long game to enjoy the pleasure of Miss Masterson's company.  Unfortunately, Bond is assaulted, and when he awakens, he finds Jill dead, completely covered in gold paint.

Bond eventually tracks Goldfinger to Switzerland, where he finds him in league with the Chinese in something called Operation Grand Slam.  Bond is captured and nearly killed, but fearing that his death would bring greater wrath of the British, Goldfinger merely holds him prisoner, smuggling him to Kentucky.  Why Kentucky?  We'll get to that in just a bit.

Aboard Goldfinger's private plane, Bond finds his pilot, one Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), and always menacing him is Goldfinger's henchman, the mute Korean Oddjob (Harold Sakata). 

Now Bond learns what exactly Operation Grand Slam is: Goldfinger will break into Fort Knox, the depository of the United States' gold reserves.  However, he isn't going to steal the gold.  Instead, he will release a dirty bomb that will make the gold radioactive for 57 years.  The Chinese will have economic chaos (always good for the Commies) and Goldfinger's own reserves will triple in value.  Now, it's up to Bond to stop this nefarious scheme...and will he be able to get Pussy in the end?

Goldfinger shouldn't work.  It is dated in several respects.  First, the rear-screen projection is obvious in many scenes (particularly in chase scenes or when Bond is in Miami Beach).  Even worse, James makes a snide remark about the Beatles that both places it squarely in the 1960s but that now makes Bond sound incredibly ignorant, even downright stupid.  Add to that Bond is quite cavalier about the women in his life (and bed), smacking one on the behind as she parts.

There are other things that simply should not work.  The original Ian Fleming novel already had the outlandish plot of having Goldfinger steal all the gold at Fort Knox, so screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn at least had the sense to point out the rather ridiculous nature of the story.  Still, the rather daring scheme to break into Fort Knox to render the whole gold reserve useless is pretty much a big idea (note that Goldfinger does not have any connection to SPECTRE, another step to break away from the predecessors).   The idea that a bowler hat could be so deadly on the surface of it should be downright laughable. 

As a side note to compliment the screenplay, it has bits of humor.  When a mobster named Solo decides not to break into Fort Knox, Goldfinger shows him out, telling the other mobsters, "Excuse me while I take care of Mr. Solo".  Sending Solo off, Goldfinger tells Bond, "Mr. Solo has a pressing engagement".  A bit later on, we see Solo certainly had a pressing engagement.  The line, delivered without a hint of irony or winking at/to the audience, makes it both funny and chilling at the same time.

Finally, let's get a gander at Pussy.  First, what kind of name is Pussy Galore?  Second, in the novel, Pussy is a lesbian "converted" by Bond (both a sexist and homophobic fantasy), and while Pussy in the film version of Goldfinger isn't "out" (how could she in the 1960s?), there are hints that she doesn't care too much for men...Bond in particular, until he convinces her. 

Despite all of Goldfinger's issues, the film thoroughly works because director Guy Hamilton has everyone play the premise completely straight (no pun intended).  Frobe (even though he is dubbed by Michael Collins due to Frobe's strong German accent) creates a cool and dangerous menace in his performance.  Auric Goldfinger (anyone else notice his first name starts with the chemical symbol for gold?) is always a man with a plan, someone who won't be ruffled by the British secret agent.  It is his coolness, his methodical nature, and his ability to plan ahead (as in how he manages his escape when the Fort Knox break-in is foiled) that makes him both brilliant and dangerous.

Sakata's Oddjob (I've seen it as both Odd Job and Oddjob, but I'm going by how the subtitles have it as Oddjob) never speaks, but in how he stands, hovers over everyone, and in the glee he takes in menacing those with his killer hat speaks volumes as to how good he is in the role.  Here is another case of a henchman (soon to be a regular feature in future Bond films) set the standard for all those coming after him.  However, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I digress to disagree with the Dean of Film Critics.  Roger Ebert once speculated as to why Goldfinger would have a massive mock-up of Fort Knox when he revealed his plans to the Mafia he'd hired to put the various elements of Operation Grand Slam together.  He thinks it was just to show it to somebody/anybody.  I disagree most respectfully with Mr. Ebert.  Granted, we both know exactly why this big model is there (something call exposition), but I think that Goldie liked to play at fantasy.  He, I imagine, spent many leisure hours imaging how the plan was going to work so brilliantly, and that big model was there so that he could spend time picturing it all.  Besides, it would impress the Chinese to see how well it worked, wouldn't it?  As for the offing of the Mob, well, that was just gravy.

I leave it up to you whether or not Mr. Ebert or I have made sense of all that, but I digress.

I also have to make special note of Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore (yes, without doubt the best Bond Girl name...ever; perhaps not the best Bond Girl, but certainly, with a name like Pussy Galore...).  With apologies to the previous Bond Girls (Ursula Andress in Dr. No, Daniela Biachi in From Russia With Love), neither are what can be called great actresses.  Blackman is the first legitimate actress to play a Bond Girl, and her mix of intelligence and strength (physical and mental) make her a solid match against both Bond and Connery.  Blackman plays Pussy as a total professional: a woman who takes pride in her Flying Circus and the pilots under her command, and a woman who can stand up to Bond both in his advances and yet be alluring enough for him to give a literal roll in the hay a try.  It takes a strong actress to make an intelligent and strong character like Pussy Galore's eventual seduction by James Bond believable, and Blackman pulls it off beautifully.

Connery continues to dominate as 007.  From the opening we can see how well he's got a handle on the character: a thoroughly professional agent who can blow up a major drug plant without ruffling his tuxedo under his wetsuit.  He comes across as intelligent, even caring (as when Jill Masterson's sister gets in the way...a plot point that didn't quite work for me).  Connery's Bond is also able to keep up the quick quips as he faces certain death.

On the subject of the opening, special mention has to be made of Goldfinger's opening title number.  The title song, sung by now-Dame Shirley Bassey, is a brilliant number.  The lyrics are amazing and logical (try finding something to rhyme with "Goldfinger" without making it sound forced or stupid), and John Barry's music compliments the lyrics brilliantly.  Those first two notes are now iconic, instantly recognizable with Bond.  We also must compliment Bassey's brassy delivery (including the final note which she appears to hold for a long time without losing any power).  Bassey and Goldfinger the song are now the gold standard (pun slightly intended) by which all future Bond theme songs will be measured. 

I digress to say that all other Bond songs will follow one of two roads: either try to match Bassey's amazing and powerful delivery (examples: The Man With the Golden Gun, Licence to Kill) or attempt to equal the lyrical brilliance of Goldfinger (examples: Nobody Does It Better from The Spy Who Loved Me, Live and Let Die).   A full discussion of Bond theme songs is left for another occasion, but suffice it to say that Goldfinger, with Shirley Bassey's titanic delivery, is now so intertwined with Bond himself that again, it's another point that instantly brings up memories even from people who might not have seen Goldfinger.  One can play the first two to five notes (accentuated by the trumpets blaring them out), or at the most, the first line of the song (appropriately being "GOLD-fin-ger") and people automatically know it's THE James Bond song. 

Goldfinger became the template, give or take a few changes, for what the public thinks of as "Bond".  In retrospect, it is a bit dated (the Beatles reference...can't quite get over that groaner), and on the surface it is a wild and outrageous plot (dare I say illogical?).  However, it is fast, exciting, and a wild fantasy that delivers the goods of being highly entertaining.  Goldfinger is brilliant, with all the elements working: a fantastic hero, a dangerous villain, and one of the best Bond Girls on film.

Like the song says...HE LOVES GOLD!!!

Next James Bond Film: Thunderball

DECISION: A-

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