Wednesday, December 26, 2012

007@50: Goldfinger (1964)

Click here to read my retro review of 1963's From Russia With Love

When it came time for Agent 007's third cinematic escapade, the wind was clearly at his back, having conquered the global box office twice already. The overwhelming popular reaction to the first two film forays meant that producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had earned themselves the ability to go even bigger and bolder, and so they did for 1964's Goldfinger, which would end not only cement James Bond's place as a pop culture icon, but also formalize the checklist of integral items the world at large would come to expect from a Bond adventure: dazzling gadgetry, death-defying stunts, demoniacal archfiends, and, of course, Pussy Galore.

The early intentions at Eon Productions had been to make the third big screen Bond outing Thunderball, based on Ian Fleming's then-latest novel. However, an ongoing legal dispute between Fleming and co-author Kevin McClory (which we'll get into a bit more next time, but which I discuss briefly here) made them turn their attention to Goldfinger, the seventh novel, instead, which accomodated the higher visibility of the films following the popular reception of the first two entries. Although director Terence Young was unable to make it three-in-a-row, the producers found a worthy man for the helm in Guy Hamilton, whose practiced, light touch would make just as indelible a mark as his predecessor -- maybe even more!

As adapted by series vet Richard Maibaum with an able assist from poet and screenwriter Paul Dehn (who would later in the decade become a primary architect of Fox's Planet of the Apes movie franchise), the film has 007 (Sean Connery) investigating eccentric billionaire Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe, his impenetrable German accent dubbed by Brit actor Michael Collins), who's using his many legitimate businesses as cover for an elaborate international gold smuggling ring. Along the way, Our Man makes the acquaintance of the Bond girl with the prototypical Fleming name: Pussy Galore (played by Honor Blackman, already well known from her time on TV's Avengers -- no, not that Avengers), and spends some time tied to a table in one of the most iconic 007 moments of all time:

I love that scene. It perfectly encapsulates everything James Bond is about in three minutes and change: the life-or-death stakes, the back-and-forth bantering with the baddie, the quick-witted, last-second escape. Just everything that makes this character and his adventures endure. (FYI, plug alert: I did a short essay on the "I expect you to die" line for Geek Wisdom.)

With the benefit of several decades' worth of hindsight, I think the ultimate measure of Goldfinger's sustained success is in how much it's become part of our shared filmic culture irrespective of whether folks have even seen the movie (Mike Myers got a lot of mileage out of this one alone for his Bond-spoofing Austin Powers cycle). The shocking image of Shirley Eaton draped in gold paint as the deceased Jill Masterson, who had the bad luck of crossing her gold-obsessed boss in favor of a dalliance with the dashing double-O. Harold Sakata as Oddjob, Goldfinger's brutish, mute manservant with the killer bowler. The famously tricked-out Aston Martin that continues to be associated with the series even after all these years.

As we track the continued evolution of the screen Bond, we also start to see a few more of the pieces clicking into place here that will eventually play an indispensable role the further along the series gets. For one, it's the first to include a pre-title sequence unconnected to the rest of the story, expanding the canvas of 007's cinematic world. This is something that would come to be an essential element of the Bond experience, with the trademark gun barrel opening segueing into a little "mini" adventure that serves to warm us up before suitably grandiose title song, and then the main course.

Another key part of the Bond mythos formalized by Goldfinger is the increased role of the various gadgets and gewgaws proffered by Q (with actor Desmond Llewellyn instructed by Hamilton to play the character as having little patience for the man who keeps breaking all of his neat, new inventions). And as to the gadgets, while that attache case in From Russia With Love was nice and all, it couldn't hold a candle to the aforementioned Aston Martin, which comes packed with machine guns, revolving international license plates, and a handy-dandy ejector seat ("I never joke about my work, 007," says an annoyed Q to the bemused Bond).

Honor Blackman as the illustratively-named Pussy Galore
Back again is composer John Barry, contributing one of the series' most memorable scores and theme songs (sung by Shirley Bassey, who nearly passed out trying to extend the song's final high note as it played against the opening titles), and production designer Ken Adam, who lends an appropriately grandiose sense of scale to the climactic action sequence in Fort Knox. This in turn delineates the crossroads the Bond series found itself at with this film: high-octane espionage with an eye towards believability a la From Russia With Love, or the bigger stakes, bigger set pieces, and larger-than-life characters and scenarios of Goldfinger.

Both movies, for as different as they are, demonstrate how well those respective approaches can work while still feeling like quintessential Bond. Sadly though, the man who got the ball rolling twelve years earlier, Ian Fleming, wouldn't be around to witness the continued heights his creation would scale. The author, whose character had been endorsed by a president and embraced by audiences across the globe, garnering more success than he probably ever dreamed of, died of a heart attack at age 56 in August of 1964, mere weeks before Goldfinger opened and made back its entire $3 million budget within a month. With Fleming's passing and Goldfinger's unquestionable success, it more incumbent than ever that all concerned keep the accrued momentum alive for the next entry: Thunderball.


Ian Sokoliwski said...

It is really difficult to think of many film series where the third installment is the equal of the original movie, let alone something like this where the third installment is regarded as the superior film! We are far more used to emo dancing Peter Parkers, downhill skiing Richard Pryors, or even Ewok-infested moons.

The DB5 is particularly interesting as it is such an iconic piece of the Bond legend. I can only think of one other example of where the third movie introduces an element like that, something that forever defines a character, and can even confuse people when it doesn't exist in the earlier movies. And that movie is...
Friday the 13th Part 3.
That is the movie where Jason acquires his signature hockey mask.

So...yeah. :D

Zaki said...

Yeah, of the iconic Bond cars, the Aston Martin is right up there, with maybe the Lotus Esprit from SPY WHO LOVED ME the only one I can think of that has something something approaching the same cultural cache -- though it would have to be a very distant second.