Monday, June 17, 2013

Goldfinger (1964)

How do you write a review for what many consider  the quintessential James Bond movie. It is considered the king of the Connery flicks (and for many the best James Bond film ever made). It is the very definition of iconic. So really, should I spend any time going over what everyone else already knows? Of course I will! I’m going to write reviews for every Bond movie. Besides, I think it’s time to scrape off some of that gold paint and see a bit of the tarnish underneath. Oh yeah… I’m going there.

British super agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is just trying to enjoy some relaxation in Miami when his superior M (Bernard Lee) gives him a new assignment. Bond is to observe Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) a wealthy industrialist who they suspect is in the gold smuggling business. Bond quickly gets on Goldfinger’s bad side when he seduces Goldfinger’s pretty assistant Jill (Shirley Eaton). Before you can say “most famous film image of the 1960s”, Jill is covered in gold paint and Bond Is standing over her lifeless body.

Well Bond isn’t going to take this lying down. He goes after Goldfinger and soon uncovers a diabolical scheme to raid Fort Knox! With some help from the pretty Tilly (Tania Mallet) and a super car, Bond attempts to stop the plot. But against him are Goldfinger’s dangerous agents, Oddjob (Harold Sakata) and Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). Does Bond have any hope of bringing Goldfinger to justice?

Good Points:
  • Hits all the key elements that you expect in a James Bond film
  • Honor Blackman is alluring in her role
  • The Astin Martin nearly steals the show

Bad Points:
  • Drops the serious thrills in favor of silly spectacle
  • Bond spends the second half of the movie hanging out
  • The script could have used a few more passes

The James Bond series hits the formula in this film, and it would inspire many of the sequels as well as countless imitators. It’s a fun flick, but a long way from the edgy thrillers leading up to this film. The script has plenty of loose threads and random moments. While I don’t hold this is a high point, it’s a perfectly average outing for 007.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 2
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review
It was the kiss of death, from Mr. Goldfinger.
A lot of people LOVE this movie. When it comes to king of the James Bond series, Goldfinger tends to be on top. As I mentioned before, nearly every scene is iconic in some way. It’s fun, a bit breezy, a bit over the top and has some very funny and quotable lines in it. In so many ways, this film was the perfect fit for the perfect time. It was this film that turned James Bond into a phenomenon.

Because of all that, it’s really hard to look at the film objectively, or in comparison to the other James Bond films around it. The Bond series is very much a snapshot of popular culture. With this film – Bond became popular culture, and held that position for the next couple movies. I think that is why so many people connected with it, and with Sean Connery as their James Bond.

But that doesn’t mean only people who caught Goldfinger in theaters are the big fans. I’ve met plenty of people my age and younger who adore the film. Most of the time, it is their first exposure to James Bond and it becomes a kind of keystone for them. All other Bond films are measured against it.

But I believe that as entertaining as the film is, it isn’t the best James Bond film, or even the best Sean Connery film, or even the best Bond film of the 1960s. It lies solidly in the middle of the pack.

No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.
The visuals are one of the most impressive things about the film. Ken Adam did an amazing job with the set design and would only top it in You Only Live Twice. His set for Fort Knox is stellar, looking impressive and a bit fantastic. The shimmering gold lighting and illuminating the bars all around James and Oddjob during the final battle are like something out of a dream. Equally impressive is Goldfinger’s rec-room/war room. With Its sliding panels, trapdoors and rising and falling furniture, it’s the perfect man cave for a megalomaniacal villain.  Then there is the laser room, easily one of the most iconic visuals in the film, with its sole table in the center of darkness, as the shiny machine prepares to whittle Bond down to size. Last but not least is the first time we see Q’s laboratory. This scene made such an impression that it was considered mandatory inclusion in every Bond film until Casino Royale in 2006.

This leads into the camerawork in the film. Goldfinger has so many memorable visuals in it, and that goes in large part to Ted Moore’s cinematography and framing. The golden girl draped across the bed is immediately stamped into our minds. The low angle, the lighting plays up the beauty and horror of the scene. I already mentioned the laser scene, but the high angle for the establishing shots, not to mention the close ups on the laser and it’s progress are striking. The entire finale sequence at Fort Knox includes many visual highlights. Strangely enough, whenever I think of this film, my mind goes right to the aerial photography of Pussy’s pilots flying over the military base around the fort. Combined with John Barry’s brassy score, this moment always stands out. Finally you have the framing of the battle around and inside the fort, with the camera capturing the scope of Adam’s sets as well as the action in front of us.

Operation Grand Slam has nothing to do with Denny's.
As usual the sound effects work in the Bond film meets the needs of the production. These early films didn’t have some of the spectacular sound work of the later flicks (especially from Goldeneye on). But the musical score by John Barry is often considered the first “true” James Bond score. Barry helped pen the title theme, and uses it as the theme for the film. He integrates Monty Norman’s James Bond theme into the score at key moments and even comes up with a sinister motif for Oddjob. From Goldfinger to The Living Daylights Barry’s signature sound would be the frame for all the James Bond films. Even when different composers tackled the series, they would end up relying on the mold Barry created here.

From an acting standpoint, you’ve got a solid cast. Connery seems to be having a good time in the role, comfortable with the character and the lighter tone of the film. I think he’s a bit better in Thunderball, because the role is a bit meatier. Matching him is Honor Blackman as Pussy. I love her tough gal performance. She doesn’t take any flack from Bond and seems to be a perfect match for him. Of course she has to melt in his arms by the end, but while she’s his foil, she does a great job.  Gert Frobe is a bit tougher to judge. He was dubbed over and so you have to judge his physical presence more than anything else. He’s got the sinister, confident and jovial villain down pat. It was such a memorable performance that it would be cloned in many imitations (and even a few sequels).

Silent henchmen and caddy, Oddjob does it all.
The supporting cast is great too, with Sakata being an intimidating presence as Oddjob. Shirley Eaton is sexy and likable as Jill Masterson who would become the golden girl. Tania Mallet as her sister Tilly is just as good as the revenge driven sibling. Back in London we get solid performances by Bernard Lee and Louis Maxwell. But the real surprise was Desmond Llewellyn as Q. The part was greatly expanded from his appearance in From Russia With Love. Here he is a foil for Bond and does a great job in the part. Again, it became a necessity to have Llewellyn in the part that he appeared in every James Bond film by MGM until 1999’s The World is Not Enough (with the exception of Live and Let Die).

Where Golfinger ends up falling a bit short is in the script. And that’s not to say the actual dialogue itself. There are plenty of classic lines from this film, and many that have become some of the most beloved lines in the James Bond canon. No I’m talking about the way story is constructed and executed.

It's Pushy!
From an early point on director Guy Hamilton decided to change the tone of this particular James Bond movie. He wanted to make it less inspired by Hitchcock, as From Russia With Love obviously was. He decided to make the whole thing more light and more like a comic book. This may be why certain plot elements aren’t really fleshed out or seem to go nowhere.

With the focus firmly on getting Bond into and out of scrapes, this allowed the writing team to come up with the first full pre-credit sequence. Unlike the one from the previous film, Goldfinger’s pre-credit sequence acts like a short Bond film. It gives us everything we could want, and sets the tone of the film. There’s action, explosions, a hot girl, Bond acting suave and Bond with a seagull on his head. It even ends with a classic post kill quip.

I got to admit this was a great way to start the movie. Once the movie proper kicks in, the first hour or so is actually handled fairly well. The introduction to Goldfinger is classic. I love how Bond outmaneuvers him in the card game, and then again during the golf game. Once he gets into the Goldfinger’s refinery and we get the great car chase, it seems like the movie is shaping up well.

Settle in James, you'll be stuck here a long time.
Things start to go badly when the movie arrives in Kentucky. Goldfinger catches sight of Felix (Cic Linder) casing the place and keeping an eye out for Bond. So Goldfinger decides to keep Bond around, visibly walking around with Pussy. This convinces Felix that Bond is in no danger. This whole sequence seems a bit pointless. It ends up slowing the forward momentum of the story. Too much time is spent with Bond in captivity and sitting around making smart remarks and not much else.

The weakest bit of writing in Goldfinger comes during the scene where our villain gathers all the mob bosses together, tells them his entire plot and then kills them. If he was just planning on killing them, why bother to tell them his plot? You can write it off as his ego forcing him to gloat. But it’s just bad screenwriting. The scene only exists to allow Bond to hear the plot and then get the word to Felix. There had to be a better way to get that information. Instead we get a fairly messy scene that leads to another pointless (but cool scene) of Oddjob getting rid of the last gangster, ironically named Solo (Martin Benson).

The Bond vs. Oddjob battle is a classic.
Once the action moves to Fort Knox, it gets better. Bond still spends most of the sequence chained to a metal box, but the stakes are high and it’s fun to watch Goldfinger’s plan in action. When Bond manages to free himself it feels like a James Bond film again, and the ending is good. I still think Goldfingers final scene is bizarre and hilarious. I’m not sure if that was the intention, but it’s one of the goofiest villain deaths in the canon (only supplanted by the bizarre death by inflation in Live and Let Die).

The second hour of the film always annoys me. It’s too messy and lacks momentum. The thing is, it fits the more cartoony and breezy tone that Hamilton wanted. You aren’t supposed to think about the movie that hard, just enjoy the ride. And most folks do.

"You've been a very naughty screenwriter."
But the side effect is that there is very little danger in this film. The most intense scene Is the laser sequence. Compared to the tense capture scene in Dr. No or the brilliant game of wits on the train with Grant in From Russia with Love, this movie is much less concerned with danger and more with spectacle. It’s that element that really turned Bond into a phenomenon. I’m not complaining, I love Bond flicks when they pull out all stops like Thunderball or The Spy Who Loved Me. But the thing is, I like both of those movies more than Goldfinger. They have better momentum, and a better understanding of what they are trying to accomplish.

But at the same time Goldfinger was the first of it’s kind of film. Even more than Dr. No it is really the beginning of the James Bond legacy, and so it deserves that distinction and everything that goes with it. But I feel that I can’t be called the best of the best. 


  1. As you say, this is the film that brought Bond up to speed. While a person might miss a few entries of the franchise and still claim to be a Bond fan, this film can't be among the missing for the claim to be legitimate. That doesn't make it the best Bond flick, of course, and I can't argue with your list of its flaws.

    I remember when Goldfinger was in the theaters. (I was in 7th grade.) This was when most films still followed the Hays Code and before the MPAA rating system started in 1968. So, this and other films that ignored the Code -- while quite mild by today's standards -- had more impact on audiences than many younger viewers today might realize. Goldfinger not only changed the direction of the Bond franchise, but was part of the broader 60s revolution of less timid film-making.

    1. Yeah, I can see how it fit into the 60s revolution. Both this film and "Thunderball" were responsible for creating the huge spy-mania that hit the world in the 60s. James Bond really became part of world culture at that point, and that includes all the sexual and violent overtones. There's a really interesting coffeetable style books called "The James Bond Legacy". It has some wonderful photos and stills from the films, but it also charts the development of the James Bond character and it's impact on the world through the decades. It really put some perspective on why the films are the way they are. It spans from 1962 to 2002 with the last Brosnan movie.