Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Goldfinger (1964): The Model Bond

Unlike many film critics, I do not count Goldfinger (1964) as the absolute “best” James Bond film of all-time. You can check out my rankings of the 007 movies here, but I actually list Goldfinger in the second position, right behind From Russia with Love (1963).

However, there is one fact about the excellent Goldfinger that is indisputable. Even if one doesn’t count it as the greatest James Bond film ever made, it is undeniably the “model” 007 film.

What do I mean by that term?

Well, a model might be defined as “a thing, system, or object utilized as an example for purposes of following, or imitating.”

That definition describes the Guy Hamilton film perfectly. It is Goldfinger -- not From Russia with Love, or even the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962) -- that serves as the model that most Bond films follow (with a few exceptions, of course). 

Why do other 007 movies follow the formula that Goldfinger pioneered more than fifty years ago?

Well, as its title suggests, Goldfinger remains the gold standard. It perfects the Bond formula -- across the board -- and today I’ll write about some of the pieces or ingredients of that formula and how other 007 films have attempted to recreate the same magic.

Before I move into a discussion of the elements of the formula perfected by Goldfinger, I should begin with a note about Bond himself.

Goldfinger represents, perhaps, a high point for actor Sean Connery. He appears more confident and relaxed in Goldfinger than he does in the first two films in the series. Also, he is not yet bored with the role, as he appears during some of his later performances.  Here, Connery is at his most suave and charming, as well as, perhaps, his most athletic or physically fit.  In this sense, certainly the third Bond film is the charm.

Finally, Goldfinger represents the franchise’s transition to a more fantastic template. From Russia with Love, except for a few outliers, exists in a “real” Cold War world. Goldfinger inhabits a different, more fantastic world, with lasers, ejector seats and the like.

Now, let’s begin to survey elements of this Bond movie model. Specifically, we’ll gaze at the way that Goldfinger spear-headed or perfected these ingredients, and other films in the franchise imitated them.

“I Have A Slight Inferiority Complex” - The Pre-Title Sequence

Before Goldfinger’s production, the pre-title sequence in the Bond films feature some important (if tangentially-related) aspect of the film’s overall plot or narrative. 

In Dr. No, for example, the pre-title sequence diagrams the assassination of a British station chief in Jamaica. This is the precipitating event to pull Bond into the action after the credits.

Likewise, the pre-title sequence for From Russia with Love features a man masquerading as Bond, hunted by an agent for SPECTRE, Red Grant (Robert Shaw) in a training simulation. It sets up a conflict between the two men that we see played out in the movie proper.

By contrast, Goldfinger’s pre-title sequence does not connect meaningfully to the actual plot of the film (the hunt to discover how Auric Goldfinger is smuggling his gold overseas). Instead, it serves as a re-introduction of the iconic 007 character, but while is on a separate and individual mission. 

In particular, Bond -- with a bird decoy on his hat -- surfaces in the water, and sets out to destroy an enemy headquarters. He plants explosives, but then removes his commando gear to reveal a white dinner jacket and a bow tie. Waiting for the boom, literally, Bond goes for a smoke break, as the enemy HQ explodes. 

Then Bond meets with a lovely woman, and finally, 007 must defeat one last bad guy. He does so, and before the fade-out to the credits, delivers a pun. After electrocuting an enemy in a tub, Bond says “Shocking…positively shocking.”

This sequence -- instead of setting up important details of the plot -- features all elements of the Bond mystique: the danger, the women, the action, and even the gallows humor. So we actually get from Goldfinger’s pre-title sequence, a mini and self-contained 007 adventure.

Can you think of a better way to re-acquaint us with Ian Fleming’s agent and his universe.

Following Goldfinger, the pre-title sequence is often utilized in a similar fashion. Throughout the franchise, it is divorced from the central plot-line in examples such as For Your Eyes Only (1981), and Octopussy (1983).

But except in the rare-one off example (such as Live and Let Die [1973]), every follow-up pre-title sequence in the film series features Bond, and functions, essentially, as a mini-adventure with just the right combination of extravagance and spectacular stunts. The purpose, to reintroduce the character into the pop culture. The secondary purpose, to one-up the climax of the previous movie, and raise the bar to an “all-time high,” at least until the next film.

Also note, the joke about the bird decoy on Bond’s head that accompanies the character’s introduction. Bond goes from being hidden in the water (beneath the decoy), to making a show of his good-looks and wardrobe, in the dinner jacket and bow tie. 

A similar joke, involving a crocodile, gets play in Octopussy.

“This is not a personal vendetta” - The Sacrificial Lamb and the Avenging Angel

I believe that the great author John Brosnan (1947-2005 gave this Bond character-type a name.

Basically, the blood of an ally is spilled in the film, thus re-focusing Bond’s determination to destroy a particularly brutal enemy. 

There are two factors to consider here, both the nature of the death (which reflects the villain’s sadism), and the nature of the victim him or herself, which creates audience sympathy.

The greatest sacrificial lamb in Bond history (until Vesper, perhaps) is likely Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, a lovely young woman who unwittingly becomes involved with Bond and Goldfinger’s pissing match, and pays the fatal price.  She dies nude…painted gold. 

This act establishes Goldinger’s sadism (and ties into his love of gold), but also reveals Bond’s vulnerability.  He takes Jill’s death very personally, and wants revenge.

Later Bond films also utilize the sacrificial lamb as a kind of turning point. Aki’s death serves this purpose in You Only Live Twice. Vijay’s death serves the same purpose in Octopussy (1983).  As recently as 2008, the sacrificial lamb appeared in a Bond film. In Quantum of Solace -- in a scene directly inspired by Goldfinger -- an agent, Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton) is murdered, asphyxiated in oil after choosing to help Bond. Her nudity, her positioning on the bed, and her function in the story are all call-backs to the model Bond film: Goldfinger.

Intriguingly, Goldfnger features two sacrificial lambs. The second is Jill’s sister, Tilly Masterson (Tania Mallett), who actually serves two purposes.

She is both a second sacrificial lamb, and an avenging angel. In the Bond canon, Tilly is not the last female character to dedicate her life to vengeance over the death of a loved one or loved ones. Consider Melina Havelock, and her function as an “avenging angel” in For Your Eyes Only (1981).  

Both characters are associated with weapons (whether a rifle or a cross-bow), and thus represent a kind of toughness that Bond finds appealing.

“The Customary Byplay” - Reintroducing the Supporting Cast, but giving them an opinion of 007.

After the pre-titles sequence and a (deadly) excursion in Miami, Bond returns to London in Goldfinger, and meets with several familiar supporting players: M, Q, and Moneypenny.

All three characters appear in From Russia with Love, but once more, Goldfinger is the first film, perhaps, that models the right tone for all three character.  Here, M and Q show extreme annoyance (possibly jealousy) with 007.  They clearly find him insufferable (M) and glib (Q). M has to reign in Bond, reminding him that he is supposed to be cool and calculating, not headed.  And Q must remind Bond not to be so hard on his gadgets, which clearly, Q loves.

This personal touch to the characters enhances the film’s humor quotient.  Bond isn’t simply receiving a mission briefing, he’s interacting with supporting cast members who have distinguishable relationships with him. They are irritated with him (M, Q), or attracted to him (Moneypenny).  Again, it’s not that the earlier films didn’t feature M or Q, or even Moneypenny, it’s that Goldfinger “cements” the relationships Bond has with each, and accordingly some level of this “customary byplay” is repeated in every movie thereafter (at least through the beginning of Dalton Era).

“Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond, it may be your last” - General Villain and Soldier Villain

Although From Russia with Love features a general villain, Rosa Klebb, and a soldier villain, Red Grant, the model is perfected in Goldfinger, with Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) and Odd Job (Harold Sakata).

To put it simply, Goldfinger is the brains, Odd Job the brawn.

In many cases, the soldier villain in a Bond film possesses some sort of physical difference that makes him unique, or distinctive. Odd Job is mute, and throws a steel-rimmed hat. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Jaws (Richard Kiel) has a mouth filled with steel-teeth, and similarly doesn’t speak, except once, if memory serves. He serves two general villains: Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, and Drax in Moonraker (1979).

The same dynamic plays out with Mr. Big and Tee-Hee in Live and Let Die, Scaramanga and Nick Nack in Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Kamal Khan and Gobinda in Octopussy, and on-and-on.
It’s an intriguing idea to split the characteristics of one “complete” villain between two characters. Goldfinger is a brilliant and egomaniacal criminal, but he has no physical prowess or strength. Those qualities go to Odd Job. Bond, on the other hand, has both the wit/intelligence, and the physical capabilities of both villain types. He is a complete person in the way that the villains never are, which may explain why he is always successful.

In this dramatic set-up, Bond can trade witticisms with one type of villain (the general), and trade punches with the other (the soldier).  We see this in Goldfinger during the laser table sequence. Bond asks if Goldfinger expects him to talk.  Goldfinger replies, delightfully, “No Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”

But later, of course, Bond fights Odd Job over an atomic bomb, in Fort Knox.

“I Never Joke about My Work, 007” – The Car

In Goldfinger, Q Branch gifts James Bond with a new car, an Aston Martin DB-5, which comes equipped with machine guns, rotating license plates, smoke screen, oil slick, and, most memorably, an ejector seat. This is the first Bond film that gives 007 a ride like this, one that is the center of its own action sequence, and which deploys a number of (destructive) gadgets. The most elaborate gadget, previous to Goldfinger, is the exploding brief-case in From Russia with Love.

So, we’re on a whole different, fantasy-esque level here.

Again, this model scene -- Bond driving a car with a “few optional extras” installed -- has been played out, over and over again, in later Bonds, with 007 getting a new car (often another model Aston Martin, but not always), from his weapon master.  We have come to expect, since Goldfinger, that Bond will drive the slickest, meanest, most heavily-armed car on the road. The gimmicks (or gadgets) have changed, of course.

Roger Moore drives a car that becomes a submarine (The Spy Who Loved Me). Timothy Dalton drives one with a rocket engine and skis (The Living Daylights [1987]), and Pierce Brosnan drives a car that can turn invisible in Die Another Day (2002), to name just a few of the variations.

This is one ingredient that Goldfinger truly spearheaded, as the first film to feature a “Bond” car.

“Man has climbed Mount Everest…He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor except crime.” – The Criminal Scheme and the Double-Cross

In Goldfinger, Auric plans, from his headquarters, the ultimate criminal scheme. Teamed with a criminal syndicate (whose funds he solicits), he plots to irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox, de-stabilizing the West and increasing the value of his own gold.  The plot is laid out, in the film, in every detail, with a scale model.

After demonstrating the plan with the model, Goldfinger kills his audience, double-crossing them. One wonder why he went to all the trouble of explaining, when he could have just take their money, and killed them.

However, the scene serves two purposes. It demonstrates the ultimate plan to the audience (cue Basil Exposition) and also reveals again, the villain’s untrustworthy nature.  He even kills his allies.

A View to a Kill (1985) is the Bond film that most closely parallels the model example above. Zorin (Christopher Walken) demonstrates his Operation, not Grand Slam, but Main Strike, using a scale model of Silicon Valley.  He then kills a prospective ally, who wants out.  Later, in a mine-shaft, Zorin takes an Uzi to his people, killing all the witnesses.  So what we get are, as in Goldfinger, the plot details, and the double cross.

To some extent, this idea also recurs in Octopussy (1983), with Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) double-crossing Octopussy (Maude Adams) and The Living Daylights, involving a drugs for guns scenario.

There are other elements too, that Goldfinger perfects: the sting-in-the-tail, for instance, though this one goes back to From Russia with Love and Rosa Klebb.  

Finally, we have the presence of a female lead -- Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore -- who first distrusts Bond, but then comes to legitimately care for him, and become an ally.  Finally, Goldfinger features a scene in which Bond out-cheats a cheater.  Specifically, he beats Goldfinger on the golf course.  This scene, of Bond out-cheating or out-maneuvering an untrustworthy villain occurs in later entries including Octopussy (using Backgammon) and Moonraker (pheasant hunting).

To describe all this another way, Goldfinger took the established pattern of the early 007 pictures, and perfected it, making the action bigger, the villains larger-than-life, and the even the gallows humor more acute. 

In moving Bond’s world from an approximation of reality to a more fantastic one, the filmmakers established a formula that has been modeled ever since.

In my book, many of the best Bond films are actually the ones that break, stretch, or pre-date the Goldfinger model, titles such as From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Licence to Kill (1989) or Casino Royale (2006). 

But Goldfinger remains the paragon, the prototype for the Bond film universe. If we're talking about formula, nobody does it better.


  1. I was always fascinated by how choosing Goldfinger as the novel for the third film was such a serendipitous event for the series. The novel came out in the middle of the run and seemed to be the tipping point where Ian Fleming said, "Okay, I'm just going to go all-out silly with this." I think the filmmakers, in their attempt to make full use of the material and actually improve on it, unknowingly created all these elements that would become obligatory set pieces for the films. For example, the mission in the teaser occurs before the novel begins and is only referred to, but it sounds quite intriguing. Since the teaser was already an element established in the previous film, this just fell into place. Also, the Aston Martin was in the novel, but only had one gadget: a clunky sonar detection device to track Goldfinger. Again, the filmmakers saw an opportunity to amp up the wow factor. The third act of the book is pretty awkward and absurd in the extreme. I think Hamilton and Co. did an excellent job of making the story more plausible and more exciting. As a result, they crafted a formula for future Bond third acts that was pretty bulletproof (pardon the pun). I think if the filmmakers had chosen a different novel for the third movie, the series could have run out of steam much more quickly. Goldfinger was the right choice at the right time.

  2. Not to mention the best part of all: that badass title song!

    I agree with your assessment of Goldfinger as a template. I think the pre-title sequence was one of the biggest reasons we used to go to the theater with such anticipation: how were we going to discover Bond this time? It was like wondering how Jim Phelps was going to come across the tape in each Mission Impossible episode.

    You are right that Sean Connery is more relaxed in Goldfinger, as if he decided to play along a bit, and this makes him a more interesting Bond. His performances tended to show the work when he tried too hard in material that didn't warrant that approach. I've never liked his performance in Marnie for that reason--that movie, that story, needed his charm and suavity to counter Tippi Hedren's frigidity, but instead he's as rigid and cold as she is, making both characters unsympathetic and making it hard to care about what happens to either of them. To me, Connery was always, like Pernell Roberts, unable to deliver a character we could identify with onscreen if he was out of sorts or at odds with the production for some reason.

    I appreciate your distinction between the "two tracks" of Bond films, the realistic and the fantastic, and I actually find it difficult to rank Bond films in a single category for that reason. I prefer a two-track ranking system to accommodate the stylistic differences, as I'm not inclined to rate those containing more fantastical elements lower out of hand. I understand why you rank From Russia With Love so highly, for example, but I find The Spy Who Loved Me a more enjoyable movie overall. Yet I wouldn't want to have to rank one above the other--and if I rate them according to type, then I don't have to compare apples to oranges.

    As an aside, I think On Her Majesty's Secret Service is actually the best of the "realistic" Bond movies, but George Lazenby is not a particularly interesting or memorable James Bond himself, so I tend to set that movie aside as if it were not a Bond movie.

  3. I remain fairly convinced that the literary Bond is a satire of the whole secret agent motif. In Casino Royale, the first novel, Bond is chosen for the job because the other double-0 agents are just too likely to play it safe. Bond is the only one of them who truly gambles. And in the novels, he's very often rescued by last-minute deus ex machina.

    The films are another thing entirely.

  4. John, your analysis of Goldfinger, one of my favorite Bond OO7 films, is simply perfect. There are two types of OO7 films. Sheri, you are right, the title song is great.