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Goldfinger Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 24, 2012 at 10:10 PM

    Goldfinger Review

    “Do you expect me to talk?”

    All together now ...

    “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

    Well done, everybody!

    Arguably the most beloved of all the Bond films, Goldfinger does practically everything right. Solidifying Sean Connery as the definitive 007 and equally cementing all those core components that went into creating the phenomenon at large - brassy title songs, ripe innuendos, uniquely memorable villains, over-the-top plots, gadgets, girls and exotic locations - Guy Hamilton's first stab at directing MI6's finest would, indeed, go on to become box office gold and one of the classiest and most exuberant thrillers of all time. Goldfinger was not only the artistic and cultural catalyst of the series - removing Bond further from Ian Fleming's original interpretation in the process, and establishing him more indelibly as a celluloid character than a literary one - but it was one of the first non-Biblical event movies that had a massive audience just waiting in feverish anticipation of its release. The pre-release hype would have put George Lucas in the shade and the advent of mass-media coverage and licensed merchandise set in motion a trend that will, like Bond, himself, almost certainly never die.

    And with the film's alluring release on Blu-ray in this relentlessly astounding box set, now is the time to look back at one of the greatest and most influential action movies ever made.

    The plot, of course, needs no introduction. Gold-besotted megalomaniac would like to meet super-suave English spy for evening drives in the Swiss Alps, dinner by laser-light and the odd round of unfair golf. Must have own car, a quip for every occasion and, most importantly, be able to get along with big Korean manservants. Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) seeks to detonate an atomic bomb inside the vaults of Fort Knox, thereby rendering all the gold reserves for North America radioactive for over fifty years and, thus, raising the value of his own gold stock on the worldwide market. The greedy bejowelled bugger. James Bond has to figure out a way to stop him.

    With incredible sets from production designer Ken Adam, that would go on to become a trademark of the series, much more elaborate action set-pieces and more globe-trotting than we'd seen before, Goldfinger exuded scope, grandeur and a certain sense of cockiness that made it one gigantic high-note for sixties cinema. The following film in the series, Thunderball, would up the ante considerably in every department, but it is Goldfinger that still resonates with fans and critics alike - its pride of place within the annals of British film-making, as well as within the Bond cannon, itself, gleaming just as radiantly as Shirley Eaton's notorious golden-girl, the doomed Jill Masterson. For someone who is inherently and unashamedly sexist, monumentally brazen and, let's face it, remarkably superficial (over the course of twenty-three movies, we still know next to nothing about him, other than the name of his ancestral home), James Bond becomes, with Goldfinger, possibly the most esteemed and adored pop cultural icon that this, or any genre has ever known. That the film doesn't take itself at all seriously is another substantial feather in its cap. The line between fantasy and farce is gossamer-thin - just look at how Joel Schumacher crossed over it with his inept interpretations of that other celebrated and devoutly camp icon, Batman - and Bond would often come perilously close to panto over the course of its cycle, also. Which is where Roger Moore comes in, of course. Goldfinger, as with most of the early films in the run, would actually carve out a new niche in movie-trends, a style that many others would seek to emulate, but none would come close to matching. Only the likes of the Indiana Jones films would reach a similar level of preposterousness tempered by sheer adrenaline, technical bravado and a central character that could, within his own universe, get away with virtually anything. But Bond is the first and the foremost. The one whose very enigmatic aura of blatant and sexist machismo becomes his most psychologically defining attribute.

    And Goldfinger is the mission that made such a testosterone-pumped hero possible.

    Actually quite faithful to the book - swap a buzz-saw for the laser and have Auric actually intending to swipe the gold as opposed to simply irradiate it - the screenplay from Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn (Maibaum had also worked on the first two instalments and now had as good a handle on the subject and the character as either Connery or Fleming) has the benefit of seeming both fast-paced, thrill-a-minute fare and also leisurely and easygoing at the same time. The film often feels longer than it really is - but in a good way. In other words, you seem to be getting more for your money, so to speak. Hamilton's direction is top-notch and surprisingly economical, unlike Terence Young's extended Thunderball, which luxuriates in overkill and set-piece indulgence. Even the big battle at the end is a relatively small-scale skirmish on the front lawn of Fort Knox - just see how this vital ingredient would snowball in the likes of You Only Live Twice, OHMSS, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker - and, even then, Bond's part in it is limited to a far more intimate confrontation with his own deadly rival down in the vault, itself, as opposed to the charging spearhead he would often become.

    The dominoes of 007's legacy fall into place one by one with each and every scene, though. When you watch the film today, in the full knowledge of what has followed, it is actually quite glorious fun to tick off the boxes as the tricks of Bond's trade and persona click into place, from the unconnected pre-credits sequence (the culmination of a mission that we aren’t privy to) and sumptuous main theme song to the breathless finale and wink-at-the-audience, get-the-girl and flaunt the rules coda.

    Shirley Bassey loosens the slates on the roof with that roaring title ballad, the lyrics penned by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, who actually sang a version of it, himself, melting ominous villainy and sensual bravado into one steamy pot. John Barry's excellent score - once again totally overlooked by the Oscars - leaves out the famed and much-loved “007” theme from Bond's previous adventure but supplies some wonderful new stuff that decorates the entire film as opposed to just its signature character. Dawn Raid On Fort Knox (as the cue is entitled on the score album) is one of the stand-out cues from the entire series. And then there is the simply wonderful orchestral treatment of the main theme as Oddjob drives an unsuspecting mobster to a “pressing engagement” in a soon-to-be-squished Lincoln Continental, the music practically bouncing in your face with absolute, unparalleled confidence. The brass soars and the bass drums wallop like a fat, happy whale in a tuxedo at the Undersea Ball. One of Barry's most endurable traits is his ability to come up with such barnstorming main themes and yet be able to rework them into various guises - ominous, romantic, action-orientated - throughout the movie in question. All of his Bond scores have this novel and highly distinctive approach. He even manages to tailor-make them to fit the particular locale that Bond is in at any given time. Perhaps the likes of You Only Live Twice, OHMSS, The Man With The Golden Gun and Moonraker are the best examples of this smoothly inextricable vibe, but Goldfinger is also the starting place for the really BIG sound that would come to typify these larger-than-life missions.

    “Ah, welcome to Auric Stud, Mr. Bond.”

    “Beautiful animal, isn't she?”

    “Certainly better bred than the owner.”

    The comedy elements are amongst the best in the series - not too self-indulgent and nicely judged and always supremely in-character. The golfing episode is wonderful, of course - Goldfinger establishing that he is both a cheat and a sore loser and Oddjob showing off his skills for ball-crushing as well as hat-flinging (that's golf balls, folks!) - but, by far, the most amusing moments are those back in Blighty spent in the company of M and MI6. M's infuriation with Bond is at its peak, here. His intercom-interruption of Moneypenny's flirting - “She is me, Miss Moneypenny. And kindly omit the customary byplay with 007.” - and his subsequent lack of patience with Bond's impromptu dissection of poor brandy during the meeting with the Bank Of England's gold expert - “Col. Smithers is doing the lecturing, 007!” - are brilliantly staged interludes of brevity, the banter purely designed to mock Bond's smug arrogance whilst also endorsing his impeccable knowledge. You've just got to love the way that M, never better performed by the great Bernard Lee than here, then examines the brandy, himself, when he thinks that no-one else is watching him, his face a picture of withered inferiority. This begrudged respect for Bond sort of goes against the fact that the two of them have supposedly indulged in joint activities of a decidedly more off-duty nature, as alluded to in From Russia With Love when M gets embarrassed over the tape recording of Bond telling Tatiana about a “certain time is Tokyo” that they spent togther. The dynamic between Bernard Lee and Connery was a terrific one that grew and grew as their time together went on. When it came to Roger Moore assuming the mantle of 007, there seemed to be a greater animosity present, with M having less time for the more urbane and sophisticated secret agent than he did for the brash, truck-driving incarnation of the more roguish sixties.

    But back to the comedy …

    What about how he lures the guard outside his cell with his repeated walk 'n' wave routine at the bars, sinking from sight with that irresistible smirk upon his face. Then there are the curious little seal lion-like barks and yelps that the, otherwise, mute Oddjob makes to get attention. Oddjob's bowler-flinging skills must surely play on Bond's time-honoured practice of lobbing his hat onto the stand in Moneypenny's office, too. And what about the kindly old lady operating the gate at Auric's Swiss factory - one minute she could be knitting Shreddies and the next she's unloading a hefty German Schmiesser at our boy. It is also highly amusing to see Bond use some top totty as a human shield, poor Nadja Regin's treacherous cabaret dancer getting the kosh over the noggin that was meant for him.

    “My name is Pussy Galore.”

    “I must be dreaming ...”

    And it’s the sort of dream that you never want to wake up from.

    That Bond would meet his match with Pussy Galore - a woman who definitely holds her own for a lot longer than most in the series - makes up for the fact that Goldfinger is, in fact, a rather low-rent bad guy. Bond beats him at golf and regularly outwits him both verbally and tactically. There are occasions when Gert Frobe even looks like coming close to having a heart-attack, his sore-losing ill-temper clearly getting the better of him. But this only makes Goldfinger a more interesting and more rounded character than the majority of the Bond's fiendish uber-villains. Auric's obsession with gold and his acute sense of pride is much more credible than the maniacal zeal of many a Blofeld, or the one-dimensional and rather obvious black-hearted intentions of, say, Hugo Drax, Dr. No or Karl Stromberg. I like the way that he knows his limitations too - stroking Pussy's hand until her telling remark of “No trespassers” puts him back in his place. Scaramanga wouldn't have fallen for that, and nor would Bond, for that matter who, true to form, practically turns his seduction of her into rape. Despite his wealth and his undoubted intelligence, Goldfinger is actually a man with a lot more depth and wit than many would give him credit for. He exudes confidence and Germanic arrogance - even though he is, somewhat bizarrely, a Britisher in both the book and the film - yet can so easily fall apart under pressure. Coming unstuck at cards - courtesy of 007, of course - and being perturbed enough by Bond's last-ditch claim of knowledge about Operation Grand Slam are obvious moments of believable down-to-earth gullibility, yet he gives much away in eccentricity and playful boastfulness. “Oh, that wonderful car of yours,” he smirks in admiration of the DB5, perhaps paving the way for the Nicholson Joker's similar bemusement regarding Batman's “wonderful toys”. Reclining in the back of his Rolls and yawning idly; being genuinely interested in seeing just how much Bond can work out about his real reason for breaking into Fort Knox; glibly remarking about the fact that he owns the golf club and curtly honouring his debt to Bond's victorious game - these are segue-ways into what makes him tick as a person as well as a nemesis. Along with Robert Shaw's Red Grant before, and Christopher Lee's Scaramanga after him, Goldfinger ranks as one of the most authentically multi-layered baddies that Bond has come up against. By being completely un-cardboard, or black and white, he, like his beloved bullion, shines with a class and an allure that cannot be faked.

    “Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He's fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor... except crime!”

    Goldfinger's glee at revealing his plans - whether they be Grand Slam, itself, or simply showing Burt Kwouk's Red Chinese nuclear fission expert, Mr. Ling, how he smuggles his gold around Europe - are not just villainous character accessories. Frobe's bulky egocentric has a childlike zeal at showing-off his knowledge, as well as his vast wealth. Listen to how he corrects Bond on the number of years that the US gold will irradiated for, and to when he corrects a mob boss on the actual number of troops stationed around Fort Knox. It is little things like these that elevate Frobe into being one of the best opponents that 007 has come up against. That he was dubbed by English actor Michael Collins only adds to the corpulent flavour of Goldfinger's excess - both the voice and the personality combining to form a magnificent entity who is educated, wily and “quite mad, you know.” And yet strangely sympathetic, too.

    “Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond, it may be your last.”

    Goldfinger's Korean henchman, Oddjob (actually Hawaiian native, and renowned wrestler and Olympic weightlifter, Harold Sakata) is also one of the most memorable sidekicks in the big baddie stakes. Small in height, but unfeasibly strong and intimidating, his wordless smile and formal precision belie a fierce loyalty to his employer that even see him standing by Goldfinger's heinous plan despite being locked-in with the bomb and, ultimately, sacrificed. Personally, I wish the final fight with Bond went on a little longer and felt as punishing as the train-trapped tussle with Red Grant in From Russia With Love, but their grapple is still highly entertaining. Bond uses literally everything around him as a weapon and the sight of Oddjob clattering down the steel stairs to catch the pesky spy before he unlocks himself from his handcuffs is actually quite unnerving. His brutish etiquette and deadly demeanour was riffed-upon spectacularly in Bruce Lee's own Bondian adventure, Enter The Dragon, with Mr. Han's muscle-clad ogre, the disciplined and dedicated bone-crusher, Bolo. But Sakata's stocky assassin is certainly in the top echelon of big screen villains, even if he is a lousy golf-caddy.

    “But banks don't open on Sunday.”

    “Mine ... will.”

    Annoying things still creep in to what, in many ways, is the perfect Bond movie. Plot implausibility is a given with the formula, and it is always easy to overlook, and even revel in the big indiscretions, but it is often the smaller details that let the side down in this entry. The Alpine cliff-top shooting incident is pure hokum and just how do those three cars get into that triple-tier position in the first place? That winding pursuit never looks quite right to me. The mob goons who listen to Auric's plan mutter and exclaim daft inanities much too often - “What's happening?”, “Hey, I don't like confined spaces!”, “Hey, what's with that trick pool table?” - and, besides informing us of the masterplan, just what is the point of Auric telling them of his scheme if he is just going to kill them all, anyway? And what of the one who thinks he has gotten away - Martin Benson's eyebrow-monster, Mr. Solo, whose trip to the airport meets with that crushing end? Why not just waste him back at the Stud instead of taking him on the much more convoluted journey that he ultimately does go on to meet his maker? I mean, they even go to the trouble of loading the boot of his car up with bullion, only to have to smelt it back out of the compacted metal cube again to retrieve it. And how does Cec Linder’s Felix Leiter get back to the Stud so much earlier than Oddjob, when the assassin is already heading there whilst he's still trying to locate the homing device? Another let-down is the elaborate title sequence that was created by Robert Brownjohn (Maurice Binder missed out on both Goldfinger and the previous From Russia With Love, which Brownjohn also supplied the titles for), in which scenes from the upcoming movie, and a final burst of From Russia's action, play out against the burnished flesh of a gold-painted girl played by Margaret Nolan. Although striking and certainly in keeping with the film's plot, the use of movie-scenes as opposed to specially crafted graphics seems lacklustre and something of a cop-out compared to the more surrealist silhouettes and gun-barrels.

    But I'm not fooling anyone, am I? It doesn't matter how many gaffs Goldfinger makes. There is an aura about this escapade that transcends such quibbles.

    Look at how much Connery is enjoying himself, for a kick-off. His tenure as 007 would cause him grief from Thunderball onwards but, here, he is basking in his own Bond-heaven at its absolute purest. When Tania Mallet's naff-shot sexpot, Tilly Masterson, informs Bond very dubiously that her case contains ice-skates, there is such a delirious smirk of incredulity on Bond's face at such a barefaced lie that he can barely get the words “Lovely sport” out of his mouth. This ease and relaxed embodiment of Bond is totally infectious and, although I love the grit and hard-edge that Daniel Craig has brought to the role, it is impossible not to be utterly entranced by the rough diamond charisma that Connery coats his covert operative with. There may be death aplenty in the film - both targeted as well as indiscriminate - but Goldfinger is possibly the most “feel-good” entry in the series.

    “This isn't a personal vendetta, 007. It's an assignment, like any other. And if you can't treat it as such, coldly and objectively, 008 can replace you.”

    The fast-editing and frame-leaping techniques that would become hallmarks of the series' earlier years are humorously employed in this outing. Apart from the usual hand-to-hand skirmishing, Bond now has the ability to remove his seagull-camouflage headgear, open a car door or a briefcase or simply turn around with lightning-quick timing. The film is also quite effectively brutal, with Bond professionally booting a lax sentry in the face, electrocuting a goon (well, two, if we count Oddjob, as well) and ramming a man's head into the side of his car. But we also have Oddjob's swiftly punishing execution of Tilly Masterson with a scything bowler-hat to the neck. Just look at that moment again - it really looks as though her head has been snapped round to a horrible angle, doesn't it? There is also that great back-breaking fall that Michael Mellinger's slimy henchman, Fisch, does when Oddjob hurls him over the high railings in the vault. Just listen to that spine-shattering clang when he hits the bottom. That’s just gotta hurt.

    “You're a woman of many parts, Pussy.”

    Fresh from a bravura and stimulating turn in TV's successful run of The Avengers, husky-voiced Honor Blackman took the Bond-girl aesthetic into uncharted territory as Goldfinger's personal pouting-pilot and the knock-out gal in charge of the “knock-out” gas that will immobilise the thousands of soldiers guarding Fort Knox. Who doesn't love that provocative series of mouth twitches that she makes as Bond comes around from the tranquilliser dart? That she claims to be immune to Bond's lecherous advances is a token gesture to her character's lesbian inclinations in the book and none of us are surprised that even she eventually falls - quite literally as it turns out - for his macho charms in a bout of flirtatious judo in the hay-barn. And speaking of Judo, that moment when she pulls Bond's legs out from under him and he crashes swiftly into an unyielding metal surface with a severely resounding krang! possibly makes me wince more than any other act of violence in the entire 007 run.

    Visually, the film is sublime and far more arresting than anything seen in the prior engagements. Ken Adams excels with extraordinarily huge indoor sets - the vault of Fort Knox (although the makers were refused access to the real thing to gain any accurate details) is, as Hamilton had requested, a cathedral of gold and Goldfinger's highly mobile parlour-pad, a flip-flopping, double-jointed delight, is like a big kid's elaborate play-set. Sixties-glamour is pleasingly bountiful as Pussy Galore's Flying Circus taxis-in and reveals itself in all its tight-jumpsuited glory, blonde cascades and pneumatic chests. Bond's clobber is still snappy - love that trendy grey Saville Row number, retro-reprised by Craig in Skyfall - and the reveal of a white dinner jacket underneath his wetsuit is priceless, even if the big matted-in explosion behind the wall doesn't look anywhere near as smart. As well as his lavish Lockheed Jet Star plane, Goldfinger's truck-mounted laser-canon is an interesting device - as it rises up to cut through the Fort's bulkhead door, it looks just like a Dalek, doesn't it? This moment is also a nice homage to the likes of Earth Versus The Flying Saucers and, indeed, it is true that Goldfinger was the first mainstream movie to feature such a weapon. It makes a great vintage sci-fi hum, too.

    “Ejector seat? You're joking!”

    “I never joke about my work, 007.”

    Still regarded as the most famous and most desirable car in motion picture history, the Aston Martin DB5 is justifiably legendary. Almost like He-Man and his ilk, or any one of the gazillion spaceships or characters from Star Wars, the ultimate Bond-car seems to have been designed with assembly-line toys in mind. Its ultra sexy curves, plethora of gadgets (some of which aren't even seen in the film) and sheer pulling-power make it both sleekly aggressive and yet stunningly prestigious. Brilliantly modified by John Stears, who must have taken a big deep breath before putting the first hole into its roof to help create the removable panel for the ejected passenger to fly through, the prototype vehicle, only on loan from the car company, is so damn cool that you almost cry when a collapsing wall eventually puts an end to its blistering run-around Goldfinger's factory complex. Utterly ludicrous it may be, but this piece of hi-tech field-kit is also the very thing that finally puts Desmond Llewellyn's Q well and truly on the map. Check out Bond's painful sigh and grimace when the gadget-man tells him he shouldn't keep him for more than an hour of pre-mission briefing.

    “Mr Ling, the Red Chinese at the factory, he's a specialist in nuclear fission ... but of course! His government's given you a bomb.”

    “I prefer to call it an "atomic device." It's small, but particularly dirty.”

    There is a definite sense of Bond getting by on a wing and a prayer with this mission. He may have the upper-hand over Goldfinger in terms of cunning, but he still makes a few mistakes. Let's not forget that he actually gets two - that's two - girls killed in the line of his duty. And two sisters, to boot. His escape from the laser is only down to pure luck - the last-minute uttering of the words “Operation Grand Slam” - and his wandering about Auric's Kentucky stud-farm have more of a cheeky schoolboy skipping class approach than a super-spy going about his business of suave surveillance. Even his attempts to get word to Linder's brusquely generic Leiter and the CIA meet with prolonged failure. But this works well with the increasing depth that Connery is bestowing his Bond with and the obvious growing ease with which he is able to portray him. Both M and Felix keep assuming, mistakenly, that 007 is “on top of things” or else got them “well in-hand” when, all the time, he is a mere captive plaything being whisked around the world by Goldfinger and his stratospheric super-vixens.

    This is another reason why James Bond works so well. You look at Arnie’s actioners, for example, or Seagal’s, or Statham’s, or those of whoever else is your champion of choice … and these are guys that simply go straight-ahead and decimate escalating numbers of foes, picking up clues as they go, until they storm, like a tsunami of ballistics, right into the heart of bad-boy central. (Stallone’s avengers are a little bit different. Like Clint Eastwood’s antiheroes, his characters regularly get pasted and only bludgeon their way to victory because they have no other option left to them.) Bond, even with the more dynamic, rhino-charging antics that Daniel Craig imbues him with, is often a happenstance hero. He starts off with a direct mission statement and a few loose parameters to adhere to, but after the first encounter he is usually getting knocked-about like a pinball, bouncing from one incident to another, scraping up evidence and bruises in equal amount, getting captured and then escaping by chance, before ultimately finding himself at the point of a chaotic final standoff with the chief villain. Whilst the format is one that we all know inside-out, the hows and whys of Bond’s triumphs are actually a bizarre roll of the dice. He is not in control like all those other cinematic heroes. We know that he will win, of course … but the actual mechanics involved in his defeating of the enemy are not so straight forward.

    Bond wins by attrition and the good, old fashioned luck of the devil. As “out there” and as far removed from the rest of us mortals as the character is, he is actually a damn sight more believable than a muscle-bound one man army that can walk through swathes of goons as though he has an invisible shield around him.

    007 gets there in the end, but he has usually been outwitted, caught and beaten and flung around the globe in the process. If you think about it logically – he very often can’t give up on his mission, even if he wanted to, because by the end of it all he has been brought right into the heart of the villain’s headquarters and exposed to his master-plan. So his only way out is to blow everything up, and think of England.

    So, there is a template and a distinct formula to a Bond film. Yes. But in a deliciously ironic subtext that has been there right from the start in Dr. No, he only succeeds with the flip of a coin, some lucky timing and the intervention of more than a few sacrificial supporting players. We would all be more like Bond … if we just trusted our instincts a little bit more, and had the courage to throw caution to the wind.

    Pure gold, Connery's third outing as 007 is the fantasy that has everything - obsession, desire, action, sex, finely rendered characters, a scintillating script, a blistering musical score and that undeniable, inimitable style of a star who is clearly at the top of his game ... and is having tremendous fun showing us that he is. Oh, and it's also got an Aston Martin DB5. .. with an ejector-seat. To give Goldfinger less than 10 out of 10 would be unthinkable. Without it, the modern action film, as we know it, possibly couldn't exist and Bond's most enduring elements certainly wouldn't. I think that OHMSS has a better story and, personally speaking, it has always been my favourite film of the pre-Craig era, but Goldfinger's Midus Touch is downright unbreakable and the movie is justifiably regarded as cinematic royalty.