National Cinemas: Goldfinger

In my month-long look at British cinema, the one figure I could not even dream of avoiding wasn’t David Lean or Michael Powell (the nation’s two greatest filmmakers), but a big man known around the world in the smug, terse way he cannot help but introduce himself to everyone he meets: Bond, James Bond. In many ways, he is the modern pop-culture symbol of Britain, and he’s far more popular today, 52 years after his first cinematic outing, than his humble beginnings in 1962’s Dr. No would suggest. He, in a sense, personifies many things commonly associated with Britain, both the good (intellect, wit, sure-faced chill, dogged tenacity), the bad (misogyny, macho-post-colonialism,  distant militaristic sense of a dehumanized and mechanized order hidden under aristocratic airs, dogged tenacity) and the both (smarminess, standoffish cool, dogged tenacity). Above all, he captures that sense of unending existence, that notion of always being there and recovering from whatever ails him, which Britain loves to see in itself. And plenty has gone wrong with the Bond series over the years, but as his films are wont to declare, Bond will always return. You just can’t keep a (maybe not so) good man down.

Because of this, choosing a film to review is a dicey proposition. I could go with my favorite (From Russia With Love), but it seems unjust to use this opportunity to just fawn over something and not to choose the film that best reflects the series’ history. And for this reason, there really wasn’t much of a choice. 1963’s Goldfinger, while not the best Bond film, remains in some sense the series gold-standard, the definitive entry as much for what it did to the series in terms of defining its tropes as for its quality.

However, it’s hard to write a review of Goldfinger that doesn’t devolve into a list of “cool” bits which exude style, although I’m still not sure it would be wrong to do so for such an escapist film. Right from the start, there’s a low-key, dead-pan cool to the film that positively demands attention. After causing some fireworks and returning to his room, Bond approaches and embraces an unnamed female (more on this later), who reacts in pain after being accidentally hit by his holstered gun.

She asks “why do you carry that thing anyway?” His response: a dry-as-ice “I have an inferiority complex”. After a raucous, disheveled fight with a henchman, (you know, the kind those early Bond films were so good at, where it actually seems like the people are fighting for real and mean to kill each other), Bond throws him into a bath and electrocutes him. We expect the usual convoluted cheesy one-liner, but instead we get “Shocking”, followed by “positively shocking”. Simple, terse, and to the point, it avoids the obvious silliness of many of the later films and substitutes it with a snark that’s nasty in its directness – above all, it’s obvious that Bond here realizes it’s a bad pun, and that he’s menacingly proud of himself for coming up with it.

This opening immediately sets the stage for Connery as the definitive Bond, reflecting perhaps one of the ultimate populist movie questions ( Who is the best James Bond?) and one this film is entirely willing to answer in the first five minutes. The key is that we actually believe this guy is a person, despite all of the world-saving he does; the line, like much of the dialogue, is just cheeky enough to be deliriously puzzling but not sound artificial. Whatever strengths other Bonds have had, only Connery had that icy, acidic detachment in delivering dialogue in a way that commands the screen while leaving enough ambiguity as to whether we should like him or cower in fear. If other actors transformed Bond into a parody of himself seeped in self-artifice, Connery made him a vicious, physical entity of pure sweaty grit. If his dialogue is indulgent, Connery realizes it is and walks a fine line, cheekily reflecting its indulgence while delivering it with a steadfast, gnarling grin. He takes it seriously, and in fact makes the character somewhat scary and perturbed for how seriously he takes such dialogue, even as he gets in a wink and a nod here and there, when no one’s looking.

Early on, we’re also introduced to the film’s main villain, Auric Goldfinger, played by a note-perfect Gert Forbe. He dances around a plot that involves radiating Fort Knox’s gold supply so that his own gold will be worth exponentially more money. And of course, Bond must stop him. But Bond movies aren’t about plots. They’re about moments, and Goldfinger himself has one better than any other villain in the franchise’s history. Namely, a famous late film exchange, with Goldinger in power and Bond strapped to a table seconds away from death, typifies the clever writing of the film and the confident panache and delicious, demonic playfulness Forbe brings to the table. When Bond asks “Do you expect me to talk?”, Forbe responds “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”. Few actor-character combinations engage in the dietetics between campy theater and bone-chilling cruelty like this one.

It’s also moments like these that play with film writing and ensure the experience works on a visceral level above all else (enhanced, too, by the very real sense of urgency and hard editing on this scene, where Sean Connery really did have someone underneath heating and melting the table he was strapped to; that expression he gives of pure selfish worry throughout the scene, accompanied by earthy sweat beads trying to escape the weathered, tormented crevices of face, is of genuine worry for his safety). Elsewhere, Harold Sakata exudes a quiet menace as Goldfinger’s main henchman, OddJob. In one of his best scenes, his initial appearance in the film, he only appears in shadow, but he’s still cool as ice. Another choice moment: Oddjob looks directly at the camera, only for it to flip and reveal his perspective looking at a mirror of himself, the image we’d just seen ourselves.

There are a number of other smaller pleasures throughout the film. The main theme song, for one, is terrific – sung by Shirley Bassey, it’s rightfully one of the most recognizable Bond themes, and it exudes a haunting, bruised atmosphere absent from too many Bond themes.  And at this point I realize I’ve essentially just gone and done that “a series of little pleasures all balled up into one ultra-cool whole” review I wanted to push back against, but that’s the power of a Bond film. At the risk of going into too much detail, I’ll mostly just say the Bond formula was established here and never assembled with more class and pizzaz – how’s that for a one sentence review?

The film isn’t without its problems though, most of them related to its datedness, as well as the larger social structures of the world it occupies. Although the introduction to the film is a tour de force filmically, within the first ten minutes we already have two caricatures of women as naïve, passively willing to let Bond do whatever he wants or to engage in what he refers to as “man talk”. Then again, James Bond isn’t and shouldn’t be an unproblematic character. At the end of the day, he’s an assassin, and a few shades shy of asshole; in Goldfinger we see him at his coldest, someone for whom killing is just part of the job. He makes killing appear fun, easy, and okay, as many actions films do, and that’s not an easy thing to swallow, nor should it be. He does what he’s asked, with flair, shaken, not stirred. He’s not the most moral of heroes, nor has he ever been – early in the film, he’s asked to treat his assignment “coldly and objectively”, to not let any emotions get the better of him, a tyranny of its own kind which hides the violence it asks of him and others, and the dehumanization they may face through having to define such killing as “rational” and “objective”.

But Connery was the one who was best able to draw out the obvious tensions in the character, with a smirk here, or a muted phrasing there. When he meets a female early in the film and essentially asks her if she sleeps with the villain, Gert Forbe, for money, she responds in the negative, to which he smugly retorts “I’m so glad”. For all his concern for her, he’s playing with her, sometimes bordering on verbal abuse. He’s playing power games and liking it, revealing a brutish shell of a person with no other joys left in the world but the most abusive ones.

This tense aspect of Bond has been explored more fully in the recent Daniel Craig films (filled with their modern-day forms of misogyny no less, such as women who are powerful only because they can kill and use weapons now too!). Connery never made it so explicit (nor could he in the ’60s). But, in his own way, there’s a questioning attitude he takes toward Bond that reveals some of the more difficult aspects of his character, albeit quietly. This early in the franchise, the cracks in Bond’s character are more implicit than explicit, but they’re present, if butting heads with the rampant male wish fulfillment of a film this ultimately cannot but be.

Other subtle visual hints reveal the filmmakers know more than we are supposed to find out: when Bond is dining with members of Britain’s elite, the camera pulls back and back until it reaches the opposite wall and unmasks a large empty room with three empty, nicely dressed men sitting within, being consumed by the decadence of the room until they are hard to discern. The room is eloquent and covered in displays of wealth to the point where the humans who occupy the room and pride themselves on this wealth are lost, ironic when they are discussing how Goldfinger’s own greed and desire to consume wealth, specifically Gold, could cripple the world’s economy. This sort of cheeky, acidic camerawork reveals a hidden depth not normally afforded to Bond films, and it’s far too obvious to be anything but intentional.

First and foremost though, this is populist cinema, here given an edge. It’s a thriller, mostly, but one with a tongue-in-cheek vibe matched to a cool demeanor that gives it a flavor long lost on self-consciously serious modern filmmaking. This is a deeply problematic film, one worthy of discussion and criticism, but much of it is hard to deny for sheer exuberance.  It has its flaws besides, of course, the misogyny and male-fantasy-nature. For starters, it’s not nearly as tight as its immediate predecessor From Russia with Love, still the most terse and unsparingly efficient Bond film yet made, and the best. And the end-game of the film, with a rather tepid “big battle” between faceless armies serving no purpose other to distract from the much more carnivorous fight between Oddjob and Bond, is a real drag. But by and large, this is smart, well-constructed filmmaking that retains an undeniable appeal, smarminess and all, today.

Score: 8.5/10

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