Monday, November 19, 2012

Movie Review: "Goldfinger" by David Pretty

All of the pieces finally fall into place with this, the third entry in the James Bond franchise.  From beginning to end, Goldfinger retains a sure footing as it confidently forges the template upon which all future entries in the series will be based.


The film begins in style with a compelling, though unrelated, "grabber" sequence in which 007 casually blows up a South American cocaine factory and then lowers his guard in the company of a duplicitous siren.  Considering how many women end up turning against James, you have to wonder what he does to them to engender such disloyalty.  Regardless, 007 manages to weather the subsequent assassination attempt by throwing his assailant into a full bathtub and then batting an electric fan in with him.  "Shocking, positively shocking," he quips while casually collecting his effects.  

Although the tradition of having a contemporary pop artist sing the movie's theme song technically began with Matt Monro's From Russia with Love, it was Shirley Bassey's iconic Goldfinger that really sealed the deal.  Although the lyrics are as brain-dead as your average Beyonce song, the tune is delivered with such passion and verve that the words become moot.  Indeed, her go-for-broke performance makes so many future Bond movie theme songs seem downright anemic in comparison.

After enduring such a taxing pre-credits sequence, Bond decides to kick back with some much-needed R&R in beautiful Miami Beach, established with a tremendous panorama shot by new-to-the-series director Guy Hamilton.  Also fresh on the scene is Cec Linder, who plays a more seasoned incarnation of Bond's old C.I.A. pal Felix Leiter.  As he attempts to relay Bond's new mission details, this leads to an almost anachronistic scene in which Bond tells his fetching masseuse "Dink" that he needs to engage in "man talk" and then dismisses her with a swat to the ass as she passes by.  Oh, those swingin', sexist Sixties.      

MI-6 orders Bond to tail bullion baron Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), who just so happens to be staying at the very same hotel.  Of all the James Bond villains, Goldfinger is definitely one of my favorites, mainly because he doesn't resemble one.  Indeed, he's completely and totally devoid of pneumatic limbs, white cats or facial scars.  He's just a fat, tasteless, uncharismatic fuck who buys his own reality because he knows that the real world would shun him.  And just like every other vainglorious CEO he's obsessed with parlaying his already-considerable wealth into something even more obscene.

In fact, when we first meet him he's actually cheating in a game of gin rummy just because, like an infant, "he doesn't like to lose".  Bond discovers that the alluring, bikini-clad Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) is using a pair of binoculars to spy on Goldfinger's opponent and relay the information to her boss via radio.  Bond cuts off the transmission, beds Jill and then gets rendered unconscious by one of Goldfinger's goons.  When he wakes up he discovers to his horror that Jill has been covered head to toe in gold paint, resulting in the first-ever medical case of "skin suffocation" and one of the series most enduring images.

Back at MI-6 headquarters, M (Bernard Lee) gives Bond a follow-up assignment to expose Goldfinger's expansive smuggling operation.  On the way out, Bond casually asks M's relentlessly randy secretary Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) what she knows about gold and she unabashedly replies: "Oh, the only gold I know about is the kind you wear.  You know, on the third finger of your left hand."  Exchanges like this make me wonder how back-logged MI-6's H.R. department must be with sexual harassment complaints.

And then we're treated to the introduction of the great Desmond Llewelyn as Q, who would go on to supply Bond with all of his fancy gadgets for the next thirty-six years.  Q is the perfect foil to 007's flippant personality and his consistently cranky requisition lectures are the highlight of many a Bond film.  In Goldfinger, Q swaps Bond's Bentley for the ultimate toy: a tricked out Aston Martin DB5 which would go on to become one the most famous vehicles in the world.

By dropping a tantalizing brick of Nazi bullion on the green, Bond lures his nemesis into a high stakes golf match.  In a beautifully elegant turnabout, 007 manages to beat the crooked magnate at his own greasy game.  At the same time we're introduced to Goldfinger's manservant / caddy / chauffeur / bodyguard / enforcer appropriately named Odd Job (Harold Sakata).  The mute, hulking, super-humanly strong, bowler-cap-chucking Korean is widely regarded as the landmark henchman in the Bond film series.                                  

Next it's off to Switzerland where 007 discovers the secret behind Goldfinger's clandestine smuggling operation.  After a run-in with Jill's vengeful sister Tilly (Tania Mallet) tips off security, director Guy Hamilton uses this as an opportunity to upstage Dr. No's car chase sequences.  Although Hamilton relies on the same jarringly hokey rear screen projection, he manages to offset this considerably by varying the environments, cranking up the shutter speed and adding in a liberal dash of visual gags.

During the pursuit we also get to see all of the Aston Martin's incredible gadgetry in action.  After the smoke screen / oil slick / ejector seat / machine gun demo, Bond falls prey to a cunning optical illusion and crashes.  He's captured, brought back to Goldfinger's lair and then strapped into one of the greatest irrational torture device in cinema history.  This leads to the following classic exchange:

Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!

Just before 007's nards gets turned into a home wood burning project, he manages to bluff his way out of the trap.  Given how well this decision works out for Goldfinger, you can't help but wonder why all future villains in the series don't just shoot Bond square in the mush as soon as they capture him.  Regardless, Bond is rendered unconscious and ends up on a private plane captained by Goldfinger's personal pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman).  "I must be dreaming," 007 wryly observes, speaking for a large segment of male viewers as well.

During the flight from Switzerland to Kentucky (via Newfoundland!), Bond takes the opportunity to freshen up in the plane's loo, which has more peepholes then Chuck Berry's outhouse.  He cleverly manages to conceal all of them before activating a tracking device and concealing it in the heel of his shoe.  He then spends the rest of the flight trying his best to get Pussy to *a-hem* open up.      

Before he's able to make any headway, the plane lands at Pussy Galore's Flying Circus, presumably located right next door to a rival organization run by Monty Python Esquire.  The balance of Pussy's airborne troupe is then revealed, perhaps giving us some insight as to why Ms. Galore initially seems immune to Bond's charms.  John Barry's bold and brassy score is the perfect accompaniment to this scene, leading one to anticipate an impromptu aerial-themed burlesque routine.  

After they arrive at Goldfinger's stud farm (?), Bond gets locked up in a cell which could easily be featured in an issue of Better Homes and Dungeons.  He manages to escape (using the old "peek a boo"/ hang-off-the-ceiling trick) just in time to eavesdrop on Goldfinger's ultimate scheme sales pitch to a bunch of mob bosses.  In doing so, production designer Ken Adam gets to flex his prodigious muscles by showing off a pool table computer console, a gargantuan wall map and an incredibly detailed diorama of Fort Knox.

Goldfinger's "Operation Grand Slam" is nothing if not ambitious.  The first phase is to have Pussy's Playboy Pet Pilots knock out the garrison guarding Fort Knox with Delta Nine gas and then use a battery of explosives and lasers to gain access to the vault proper.  The real kicker comes later on when Goldfinger admits to 007 that he has absolutely no intentions of stealing the gold.  In fact, his endgame is considerably more interesting, original and brilliant then a petty case of grand larceny.  

And that's why Auric Goldfinger one of the best villains ever.  He tricks the mafia into bankrolling his scheme and then kills them all wholesale instead of paying them back.  He unflinchingly plots to annihilate the world's economy for his own personal gain.  When his plans start to go sour he immediately reveals a pre-planned disguise and then ventilates his business partner without a second thought.  He's even ambitious enough to give us one of the earliest examples of a cinematic false ending.

Through it all, Gert Fröbe is fantastic as the arch villain.  What makes his performance all the more remarkable is that the German-born actor could barely speak English and had to deliver many of his lines phonetically.  Although his voice was ultimately dubbed, Fröbe still possesses a shlubby, perverse authenticity and a quiet air of menace.  When it comes to convincing and multi-dimensional layers of unrepentant evil, they really broke the mould with this dude.  

Despite her character's ludicrous handle, Honor Blackman brings a tremendous amount of gravitas to the role of Pussy Galore.  Coming off of a rough-and-tumble stint on The Avengers, Ms. Blackman makes for both a convincing pilot and judo expert.  Her chemistry with Connery is downright tangible and their skirmish in the barn is super-charged with sexual tension.  The fact that her character actually has an impact on the plot goes to show that Bond Girls can be more then just window dressing.

But in all estimates it's really Sean Connery's take on James Bond that really keeps the film together as a cohesive entity.  No matter how ludicrous the scenario, Connery's dry-as-martini sardonic wit, cool demeanor and unflappable air of confidence all add up to one legendary turn.  Whether he's dodging bullets from a machine-gun-toting grandmother, delivering determined blows to a grinning, invulnerable Odd Job or rolling around in the hay with Pussy, Connery is equally game.      

Director Guy Hamilton's sure-footed direction is sustained throughout a climax in which Goldfinger's uniformly attired, Chinese-sourced minions make their assault on the gold reserves.  By shooting on location in front of the real depository building and using genuine blueprints to re-create the interior of Fort Knox, Hamilton gives us ample touchstones to prevent the film from drifting off into the stratosphere of fantasy.  Bond's likely escape, his tussle with Odd Job and his tentative guesswork in defusing an explosive device are all handled with note-perfect assurance.  Even the final count on the bomb's timer makes for a perfectly cheeky cherry on top of a sundae of awesome.

This is it, folks: the film that catapulted 007 right into the epicenter of pop culture.  Although I miss From Russia With Love's skullduggery, Goldfinger gave the series it's own unique identity.  This is the gold (pun intended) standard by which I judge all other Bond films, including the more recent entries.  Despite the fact that Goldfinger is nearly fifty years old (yikes!), it's refreshingly unpretentious, unrelentingly paced and wittier then any film of this ilk really deserves to be.

   Tilt: up.

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