BlogalongaBond #3: Goldfinger
Another month, another web of sin to enter…
(Guy Hamilton, US, 1964)
A classic case of a franchise dumping everything it had built up in favour of gadgets, quips and action… but virtually unique in avoiding ‘threequelitis’
By any rational standards, Goldfinger shouldn’t work. The third film in the Bond series, it’s the one that throws out the carefully conceived Cold War backdrops and fills the gaps with a set-piece laden dance with a very silly villain, its action driven by gadgets and each notable death marked with a quip. In short, it’s the proverbial threequel.
But…nobody knew nor cared back in 1964 that threequels were supposed to be awful, and Goldfinger is too busy redefining the format (not only Bond but the entire action genre) to worry. After two films in which 007 takes a back-seat role during the opening act, this one doesn’t fuck about. There’s a seagull-on-head disguise, a tuxedo under a diving suit, the lighting of a cigarette suavely timed to coincide with a massive explosion and a bathtub electrocution in the first five minutes, before the theme song has even been sung. For anybody hoping for a perfection of the more realistic flourishes of From Russia With Love it’s shocking (positively shocking). For everybody else, it’s a thrilling marker of a new intent.
Throughout, established rules are being flouted and replaced with ludicrously exciting alternatives. Bond’s mission kicks off in sunny Miami Beach before his briefing with M in dour old London. His initial lay gets painted into oblivion before Moneypenny has made an appearance. Q’s lab, clearly taking a leaf out of SMERSH’s training centre in the last film, has gone mental with a customised Aston Martin DB5. And even the hitherto boring scenes where Bond chats with the baddie are galvanised with comedic games of golf and a testicle-threatening laser.
Where did this come from? Clearly, much comes from Ian Fleming, the guy who had Mr and Mrs Goldfinger call their son Auric, and then wonder when he became so obsessed with the stuff he had his gun, car, and women made from the stuff. (And don’t get us started on Pussy Galore.) Much comes from the Daily Express cartoon strips, which laid the foundation for ensuring there was plenty of action every four frames. And surely it has something to do with the burgeoning confidence of quipmeister screenwriter Richard Maibaum in seeing how often something big can come up, mad scientist Ken Adam with his wacky revolving pool table, and John Barry coaxing his horn section to outblare Shirley Bassey.
The principal difference is Guy Hamilton, whose direction bounds about with the undisguised glee of a kid with a whoopee cushion where his predecessor Terence Young dealt in starchy pleasantries. There’s an insouciant cheekiness from the minute Hamilton cuts from an aerial shot of Miami into an underwater camera – giddy, reckless, a literally refreshing dip in the pool. And it’s Hamilton who delights in having a tubby hausfrau wielding an oversized machine gun, or a henchman who can’t speak but has the smile of a sadistic child when he’s decapitating statues with a metal bowler hat (and Harold Sakata might be the single most influential performance by a mute brickhouse in cinema history).
It’s a style that chimes effortlessly with Sean Connery’s ambivalent feelings towards his payday, turning his surly, steely violence into a camp disdain for the weird situations he finds himself in. This isn’t Bond as scripted, still pontificating about brandy or insisting on the rules of gentlemen golf. It’s a film that feels attuned to the birth of the Swinging Sixties, and Bond’s crack about the Beatles being unlistenable becomes the single falsest note of any Bond movie (and, yes, I’m including Die Another Day in that assessment). Somewhere between script and release, Bond’s world changed irrevocably; and never again would the producers be so out-of-touch with the contemporary world. Just the opposite: from here on, 007 gets pimped out to mimic whatever else in going on in cinema. Those future experiments with blaxploitation, Star Wars, Jason Bourne et al begin here.
It’s not perfect. By reversing the slow-burn pacing of From Russia With Love and putting all the action upfront, the film lags when the action relocates to America. There’s a whole half-hour where 007 is a prisoner to the need to explain the plot…although there’s something indelibly Bondesque about the fact that he’s able to save the day by shagging a lesbian. From now on, the question becomes – how do we fill this gap? And the answer, increasingly, is more action, more gadgets, more quips. Goldfinger is the first Bond movie driven by threequel logic, but it won’t be the last.