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Goldfinger made an impact heard 'round the world, in England in late 1964 and in the U.S. early in 1965. Grauman's Chinese Theater reportedly ran it around the clock for a month, something that hadn't been seen since WW2 and wasn't repeated until 1973's Enter the Dragon. For those of us in smaller towns, Goldfinger was our first introduction to James Bond, the two-fisted, urbane ladykiller that every 13 year-old wanted to be. This chapter in Bond's adventures offers violence, glamour and science fiction in a package that celebrates materialistic excitement: fancy cars, clothes and women. Undercover agent 007, with his license to kill, does what governments cannot; he puts a heroic face on the Cold War. Sean Connery's Bond is a curious symbol of English potency -- an elitist knight in armor, but also a sadistic thug who gets as much of a thrill from killing as he does sex.
In Bond's fantastic world only exciting things happen, in exciting surroundings. Fleming's 1959 book has most of the film's winning ingredients but not its glamorous sheen. The book reads as though written in great haste; for his big Fort Knox heist Fleming "borrows" the ending of Raoul Walsh's White Heat, right down to the involuntary presence of the hero and a desperate last-minute message that brings an army to the rescue. (I wrote about the relationship between 007 and film noir in a Savant article from 1998.) Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn compress, exaggerate and streamline the movie into a (for 1964) hyper-efficient entertainment ride. Every swift sequence introduces a new character, a new location or a new brand of jeopardy -- if not all three. In his first Bond directing assignment, Guy Hamilton plans every shot so that even ordinary connective tissue -- cutaways to vehicles, people in corridors -- propels us forward. The picture never slows for a minute.
From Russia with Love stuck closely to the original Fleming story outline, while Dr.No played a bit with "space age" missiles and the like. Goldfinger gives Bond a broad selection of entertaining gadgets, often as throwaway gags. Bond's sleek, expensive car is loaded with defensive shields and weapons, including Ben-Hur ® brand wheel hub tire slashers and a highly unlikely ejector seat. 2 Goldfinger's formidable bodyguard Oddjob (Honolulu legend Harold Sakata) makes use of a razor-brimmed bowler Frisbee to vandalize statuary and slice necks.
Goldfinger is adolescent pulp (complete with a kid's idea of sex) in a really classy, expensive package. It's perfect decadent escapism for the 1960s. Audiences loved Bond's "far-fetched" devices. Some are now commonplace -- miniature radio transmitter homing devices and GPS-like dashboard map trackers. One item suitable for a science fiction movie is a large "industrial laser" that might as well be a Flash Gordon ray gun. Not only does it cut an entrance into the Fort Knox Repository, it's useful for putting 007 in a particularly ticklish situation, a space-age update of the silent-serial sawmill jeopardy gag. Squirmy scenes like this make Goldfinger the last Bond adventure where 007 has mortal vulnerabilities.
Auric Goldfinger's super-criminal activities are pure comic-book stuff, given a high polish. The 24-carat gold bodywork on his Rolls-Royce might get through a customs check, but would surely be detected as soon as it was weighed for transport by airplane. 3 Audiences loved Gert Fröbe's dynamic sales presentation for his Fort Knox heist, delivered in Ken Adam's outrageous playroom set that reconfigures like something on a Broadway stage. He murders a dozen gangsters with nerve gas, a definite first; in 1964 any kind of gas killing was associated with Nazi war crimes, and therefore out of the bounds of acceptable good taste. I suppose that Goldfinger has a legitimate reason to test the poison gas, but it makes his bravura presentation rather pointless, considering that he intends to kill his only audience. That Goldfinger blithely wipes out the heads of a score of organized crime syndicates demonstrates the kind of panache we associate with a Batman- like SuperVillain.
Goldfinger's better than a comic SuperVillain, because he's smart, too. In the book the crooks attempt to flee Fort Knox in a special train. The movie's Goldfinger has a smarter idea to make himself ten times richer, and not move the gold at all. That kind of brilliance is still a screenwriting masterstroke; I'll bet that it makes the hearts of today's bonus-happy CEOs flutter with excitement.
Goldfinger hasn't dated as much as other SuperSpy pictures, even though its politics reflect sixties' sexism and racism. The series' sense of humor -- not yet entirely devolved into burlesque one-liners -- saves the day. In Miami, Bond dismisses his babe of the morning -- named "Dink" -- with a swift slap to the rump: "Say goodbye ... man talk". Bond's usual three-girl formula as explained by Roald Dahl (good girl, bad girl, good-bad girl) consists of a gentleman's escort, a lesbian ice skater and a lesbian gangster who 007 apparently "reforms" through sex therapy. 1 Bond shows a measure of compassion for his first two encounters, even the man-hater who says No, but only when they're dead and it's safe to get sentimental. Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore is at least more of an equal, a tough/tender pro at home with gangsters. One literal roll in the hay with Bond, and Pussy is converted back into "acceptable" submissiveness. I wonder if Bond will visit her in Sing Sing?
Auric Goldfinger utilizes Korean lackeys as his crime force and private army, as in the original book. Ian Fleming called the Koreans subhuman troglodytes but the movie's Oddjob (Harold Sakata) is an upscale variation on the standard Yellow Peril mute (tongue-less?) menace, like the fake-Asian Milton Reid in the Hammer Films Terror of the Tongs and Night Creatures. Again, Goldfinger takes the edge off by making Oddjob a really cool customer. James Bond's most exciting opponent crushes a golf ball in one hand. He withstands direct blows to the face and with a single Karate chop puts out Bond's lights for hours. An ex-pro wrestler, Sakata seems nigh invulnerable.
James Bond films are such high-profile PR vessels for Great Britain, I sometimes wonder if the screenplays are vetted by the House of Lords. Crime seems to be a foreign problem. Bond tangles with American gangsters (who behave as if in a 30's movie) but no Brit crime lords are shown. The Krays and Spivs are mostly unknown over here! 4 Cold War messages and evasions are everywhere. Bond remarks about "South American dictators using heroin profits to finance revolutions", when the only serious allegations of that kind have been leveled at the C.I.A. -- anybody ever hear of Fidel Castro running dope? Speaking of the C.I.A., Yank operative Felix Leiter (Cec Linder) is an impotent spear-carrier for 007; he needs Bond's help just to catch one lousy card cheat operating in broad daylight at a Miami hotel.
The Cold War politics get really dicey in Operation Grand Slam. Goldfinger's heist to-do list requires a "small, but particularly dirty" nuclear device, as well as toxic nerve gas. In the joke of the decade, the script takes pains to establish that Goldfinger must go outside the United States to obtain both. In the case of the deadly nerve gas, that's like importing cuckoo clocks to Switzerland.
The masterful Dawn Raid on Fort Knox sequence brings Goldfinger to the peak of the entire Bond series. John Barry's phenomenally exciting music score -- reason enough to re-watch the film -- works itself into a high state of tension. Unlike almost all the films in the series, Goldfinger challenges James Bond with a predicament truly worthy of his SuperSpy status: he's handcuffed to an atom bomb, its timer ticking away the minutes, and locked in a giant vault with the most dangerous foe he's ever faced. Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes and Dick Tracy were never painted into such a hopeless corner. How can Bond possibly escape? Starting with the next movie Thunderball, the series would begin an eternal process of self-parody, making Bond a virtual bystander in ever-larger battle scenes where his presence hardly feels necessary.
James Bond 007 was so popular in 1965 that one had to look in publications like The Reader's Digest to find a dissenting opinion. They called Goldfinger immoral trash and sadistic to boot. "Well of course, and thanks for the compliment" was the producers' probable response. But screenwriters Maibum and Dehn certainly did work up a clever puzzle of cinematic sadism. (spoiler) In disaster and mass catastrophe films (The Towering Inferno, Godzilla) the audience arrives eager to become participants in mayhem on a grand scale. The makers of these kinds of movies are sometimes accused of exploiting or trivializing morbid subject matter.
In Goldfinger we see 30,000 Kentuckians murdered before our eyes with nerve gas, a colossal downer that could easily generate plenty of ill will. Audiences in 1965 stared with their mouths open -- they can do that? The script dodges the problem by letting us know after the fact that that the gas is harmless; everybody we see dying is faking it. The movie gets to have its cake and eat it too. It dishes up an outrageous wholesale slaughter, but can sidestep accusations of bad taste because the "sadism" was all in our heads. Pretty nifty. As an added benefit, the "pretend" killing helps excuse the not-quite-convincing "dying" done by the soldiers at Fort Knox. This has to be one of the most subtle moral dodges in film history. We almost expect a Tex Avery sign to pop up, asking the audience: "Disappointed?"
Sean Connery is at the top of his game, not yet weary of his Bond-age to the 007 role, which he logically feared might ruin his career through typecasting. Gert Fröbe is superb as the greedy Goldfinger. The dialogue identifies him as a British citizen, perhaps to make nice with the German distributors; Bond films from here on in would associate their villains with Eastern bloc countries, or make them rogue bandits operating through corrupt business empires. Honor Blackman makes a formidable feminine lead. She and Diana Rigg of On Her Majesty's Secret Service are legitimate strong personalities, something that can't be said even of the latest Bonds' leading ladies.
I could go on for pages talking about minor editing details in Goldfinger, but I'll leave with just one. In the film's final scene, many people have say that they see a film technician behind Goldfinger when he exits the plane's rear compartment to threaten Bond. Well, the mystery man is clearly one of Goldfinger's Korean henchmen. Back when the film was projected in 1:85 on American screens, this fellow may have been cropped off the bottom of the frame when he appears, a few cuts later, unconscious or dead on the floor of the cabin. But we don't see how he got that way. Perhaps he bonked his head when the plane went into a dive. I think that he got shot, an action dropped during the editing. Back in the main credits, we're treated to an insert angle of Goldfinger and Bond's hands grappling with the golden gun; it goes off, jerks to the right, and then shoots again. I'll bet that the original fight blocking had Bond shoot the henchman during the struggle, before a second shot blasts out the Gulfstream's window. Editor Peter Hunt may have excised the action because it confused the issue -- the audience has already been primed to expect the first gunshot to "go through the cabin wall like a hot knife through butter". 6
MGM's Blu-ray of Goldfinger is the Bond film I can watch twice a year 'til doomsday, and I'm happy to report that it looks fantastic. Releases preceding the '06 DVD Ultimate Edition were grainy and often pumped the chroma too high, exaggerating colors -- that golf course really is on the scruffy, slightly wilted side. Maybe it wasn't summer yet, or maybe no quality golf course wanted a film crew tearing up its greens.
Goldfinger is one of the titles given the 4K film-digital restoration by the Lowry company, and the results are spectacular. The original negative was scanned, taking the film back to its original images. 5 The show looked good in DVD but Blu-ray's vitality and sharpness puts Ted Moore's slick cinematography in the best possible light. The rich woodwork of the Ken Adam sets is beautiful to behold. We wonder if the Swiss "laser" chamber is the Kentucky game room set, redressed. Of the many rear projection (or sodium vapor?) process shots, only a few still look unbalanced, or have light traveling matte lines.
Digital cleanup has been utilized to remove wires from Oddjob's whirling bowler and from some of the airplane miniatures; technically that's undesirable revisionism but I'm tempted to look the other way. Unlike most of the other new Bond releases, Goldfinger retains the "Bond will be back in ..." title card, perhaps because it comes at the beginning of the credit crawl instead of the end. We're told that it originally announced "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" instead of "Thunderball", but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that that change was done before Goldfinger conquered America.
The path to the special features is obstructed by a menu system that I've already complained enough about on other releases. The extras are almost identical to the DVD Ultimate Edition lineup, with the happy fact that some of the docus have been reformatted to HD, with film clips added from the improved feature master. The Ultimate Edition introduced footage showing actors Theodore Bikel and Titos Vandis (The Exorcist) auditioning for the role of Goldfinger. Bikel is good but nowhere near as exciting as Fröbe. Vandis, an earthy-looking Greek ethnic type, must have been tested as a favor to somebody.
Goldfinger is available separately but also in a deluxe James Bond Blu-ray Collection Volume Three Three-Pack, with 1979's Moonraker (Roger Moore) and 1997's The World is Not Enough (Pierce Brosnan). Moonraker was originally intended to simply be mastered from an improved HD transfer, but received the full Lowry treatment to clean up all the garbage mattes, wires, etc., associated with it's elaborate outer space special effects.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Goldfinger Blu-ray rates:
1. I've never tried to figure out where the classic "consensual rape fantasy" began -- books? Plays? Bond forces himself on Pussy Galore, and in mid-kiss she changes from rage to passion, much the same way a screaming infant becomes content when you shove a baby bottle in its mouth. The only mental examples I can think of right now are Doris Day movies.
2. Among other goodies, the ejector seat has a wonderful comic strip logic. The explanation given by the humorless "Q" (Desmond Lewellyn) gets a rise from the usually blasé Bond: "You're joking!" The idea that such an elaborate device just happens to become useful at the perfect time and place is a definite adolescent fantasy. I always compare this gag to the marvelous Boba Fett character in the 2nd and 3rd Star Wars film. Fett apparently lugs a heavy rocket on his back day in, day out, just so it will be ready to help him zoom into action should a fight break out. You gotta love romantic nonsense like that.
3. Let's be generous and call Ian Fleming a literary "eclecticist", as opposed to a cinematic sneak thief. The smugglers in Hubert Cornfield's 1957 Plunder Road cast a car's bumpers in gold for the same reason Goldfinger does. A simple fender-bender exposes the gold beneath the paint, bringing their perfect crime to a violent finish on a highway bridge. Another film noir raided for a Bond story.
4. Do British movie censors take national prestige into account? Sci-Fi critics (including me) often invent conspiracies to explain why the release of Joseph Losey's anti-nuke, anti-authoritarian Hammer film These are The Damned (The Damned) was held up for two years. For all I know, someone was concerned that its Teddy Boy menace made it seem a negative advertisement for UK tourism!
5. I always wonder if this is truly the case -- did they really transport the irreplaceable original negative from the UK?
6. A glaring error, or purposeful mis-direction, in Goldfinger appears to occur with Tilly Masterson's attempt to shoot Bond with a high-powered rifle. After the shot, Oddjob looks up and smiles, which falsely indicates that he's aware of the murder attempt and approves of Tilly's shot.
Not much later, we learn that Tilly was aiming at Oddjob, or Goldfinger, for killing her sister. That means that Oddjob's smile doesn't make sense -- unless he likes gunshots in the morning because they sound like victory or something.
There's another explanation: Tilly blames Bond for Jill's death and lies when she tells him otherwise. Goldfinger may have led her to believe this, leaving out the petty detail about the gold paint. So Tilly doesn't necessarily hate men, just that bastard Bond. Of course, this theory means that Goldfinger and Oddjob are fully aware that Bond is stalking them across Switzerland. That doesn't make much sense, story wise.
In the book, all agrees with the standard read of the movie. This leads me to give up and conclude that Oddjob's odd smile is more likely than not a sneaky editorial cheat.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.