Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Three: Goldfinger (1964)

The problem with any kind of time capsule is that the curator may not to be able to predict the long-term effect on public consciousness of any of the items chosen.  Imagine opening a 1960s time capsule now, and out falls Swiss Family Robinson and an album by The Dave Clark Five.  Were we to put one together now, though – say, we were putting together time capsules – of pop culture touchstones – for each decade of the 20th Century – the 1960s edition would, without question, contain Goldfinger.

Goldfinger isn’t the biggest Bond film, in adjusted box office terms, and it isn’t even the highest grossing Bond film of the 1960s (it took c. $125 million at the Worldwide Box Office): that honour goes to the next instalment.  It is the film that moved the series into the category of a phenomenon.  It made the Aston Martin DB5 the most famous car in the world (a hangover still afflicting the series today, as EON continues to insist upon rolling out this car for ill-judged nostalgia and self-congratulation). It brought the series the first of its five Academy Awards, with Norman Wanstall taking the award for Best Sound Editing, and despite topping out at a lower figure than Thunderball, the Guinness Book of World Records listed Goldfinger, at that time, as the fastest grossing film of all-time.  It has, also, arguably the most famous henchman of the series in Oddjob (Harold Sakata), and Shirley Eaton as Jill Masterson, the character’s death from skin suffocation, after being painted gold, one of the most iconic shots in cinema history.

As for the plot, James Bond (Sean Connery) is taking some leave in Miami, after destroying a drug laboratory in South America.  While he is there, he is approached by the CIA’s Felix Leiter (Cec Linder replacing Dr No‘s Jack Lord in the role – the revolving door of actors in this role will begin to become something of a signature for the series, as seven actors have played the part in the EON series, with an eighth in the unofficial Never Say Never Again), with orders from M to observe Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), a British-but-sounds-German businessman staying at the same resort.  Observing the highly competitive man cheating at cards, James bluffs his way into Goldfinger’s suite, where he meets Masterson, and uses her communication system to turn Auric’s cheating against him.  This leads to Jill’s murder, and a chastened and angry Bond needing to be warned by M not to make this personal.

Bond is assigned to ascertain how Goldfinger is smuggling gold around to take account of the variances in prices around the World.  After capture by Goldfinger – and the equally iconic laser scene (“No Mr Bond, I expect you to die”) – Bond is taken to his captor’s stud farm in Kentucky.  There he learns of a planned attack, funded by a consortium of mobsters, on the gold reserves at Fort Knox.  The truth of the attack being far more dangerous than originally thought – with a nuclear device intended to radiate the area – Bond works to try to turn (in more ways than one, as lovers of the book will know) Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) – Goldfinger’s associate, and head of a team of female pilots – to his cause.

To this point, the Bond films were feeling very like audience wish fulfilment.  They were showing a world that the average 1960’s cinema-goer couldn’t expect to see, with Bond eating food such as green figs, with which a Britain not too many years out of widespread rationing would not be familiar.  In this regard, Goldfinger is a step forward again.  Dr No had an exotic location, but it was bound to one place, and From Russia with Love was set largely in Istanbul.  Goldfinger, by contrast, has the United States – a source of many of the films and much of the music the UK would enjoy, but inaccessible to most, on the basis of cost.  It also has some beautiful scenes in the Swiss Alps, shot-making that has barely dated to this day.  Good looking though the previous film was, Goldfinger looks a great deal richer in colour palette, and it is a far brighter film.

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Much of the extra lavishness is due to an increased budget.  This film was budgeted for $3 million – the price of the first two pictures combined.  That budget was, this time, in the hands of director Guy Hamilton, who had previously made the 1954 Alastair Sim film An Inspector Calls (also a very successful stage play).  Hamilton would go on to direct a total of four James Bond films, to variable results, but his work here is excellent.  Certainly one of the long-term effects of his work here was to change the relationship between Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and Bond.  In talking to Llewelyn, Hamilton explored with him how Q would feel about Bond.  Llewelyn felt, like the audience, that Q would, in this era, admire Bond.  Hamilton argued that it would make for better scenes if Q resented him; given that he would provide the agent with all of these wonderful items, only for them to be destroyed in the course of that very mission.

Other formula aspects were either being introduced or refined.  The pre-title this time is the first to feature Bond (not the first to feature Sean Connery, but the first to feature Bond), and is a little, self-contained caper, unrelated to the plot to come; something that was fairly common to pre-titles until the early-80s, since when they have always linked into the main story.  The title sequence itself – the last to be designed by Robert Brownjohn – Maurice Binder (who designed the gunbarrel and titles for the first film) would take over next time out, and stay in the role until 1989’s Licence to Kill – would introduce into the series the voice of Shirley Bassey.  Bassey would make two further title track contributions: 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever and 1979’s Moonraker. Bassey also recorded a track for Quantum of Solace that, in the event, wasn’t used.  Whilst that may be only three entries, more importantly, it set a template.  A clear majority of tracks have been ballads recorded by women, rather than rock songs, male crooners, or any other path that may have been taken with more regularity had it not been Bassey here, or had Goldfinger not been the film that captured the zeitgeist, setting the formula the filmmakers would want to repeat.

The sexual politics of mid–60s Bond is questionable, when viewed from a modern perspective.  We’d seen a vicious slap meted out to the leading lady in the previous film, and next time out, we’d see Bond, effectively, blackmailing someone for sex.  The latter is meant to come across as playful, but there are other readings, to say the least.  Here, we see Bond force himself physically on Pussy Galore.  Again, it is probably fair to say that the intention was for this to be playful, but it now amongst the most poorly dated and ill-judged scenes in the series.  In the book, Pussy is undoubtedly a lesbian.  The merest hint of this survives to the film, as Galore tells Bond to turn off the charm as “I’m immune”; as this could also be a result of professionalism or simple disinterest, it is far from clear from Hamilton (or writer, Richard Maibaum – who we’ll find time to say more about on another occasion, hopefully), that lesbianism is being implied here.

Despite the extra budget, there are filmmaking tricks hiding in plain sight.  Kentucky scenes were actually filmed in England, the stud farm being a Pinewood Studios creation.  The excellent weather in which they filmed hid this very well.  Other American scenes, such as the Miami Hotel, were shot on sets – against back-projection, where necessary.  For those who definitively remember some shots definitely taking place in the United States – yes, some establishing photography took place there, with Cec Linder the only member of the main cast to shoot in that country – so you did see Felix in America.  Most the time, he’s sat outside Kentucky Fried Chicken though – filmmakers clearly thought that was the way to showcase America!

Connery’s toupee is a little more obvious this time.  Though it is a different colour, it’s very like William Shatner’s wig in Star Trek: The Original Series.  The front of it gives it away as that slightly-quiffed lace job as can be seen on the TV version of Captain Kirk.  That said, he is at the peak of his powers at this point.  Having turned 34 weeks before the film’s release, Sean Connery was, by now, physically a little more mature than he had been two years earlier.  He had visibly filled-out, but, unlike with his later entries, he remained trim, fit and engaged.  It is fair to say that he looks like he is having fun.

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Goldfinger represents everything the series can be at its best.  It has a larger than life villain, physically threatening and distinctive henchman.  It has a leading lady with screen presence – Pussy Galore giving the lie to the idea that all Bond girls are damsels in distress: she remains one of the best examples of a strong leading lady the series ever produced, with Honor Blackman’s greater age and life experience being of great assistance in this (at 39, the oldest woman to play a Bond girl until Monica Belluci in Spectre).  It has a Bond actor at his absolute peak – and down the line we will see an example of a slightly-past-it-Bond producing his best performance and, arguably, strongest film.  It has a terrific Bond-M scene (“This isn’t a personal vendetta 007!”), and it has the iconography of the gadget-laden car, the golden girl, the Swiss Alps, the gold depository at Fort Knox (which production design had simply to imagine, as they certainly weren’t going to be offered photographs to study), and Bond about to be cut in half by a laser – an impossibly fantastical idea and visual in 1964.

So, the Bond series had found its voice and its tone.  Whether this is better than From Russia with Love is open to debate; but that Hitchcockian influence was gone, and in its place was the James Bond series we know and love, with merely a few little tweaks to come next time out.  With that entry, the series, and EON Productions would lose its naivety, due to a name that would haunt them for decades to come: Kevin McClory.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Thunderball (1965).

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