If the political correct revisionists finally catch up with retrogressive James Bond and deem that his entire set of adventures be scrubbed from history, please let us keep the five-minute pre-credits scene that opens Goldfinger (1964), which are the most quintessential of his affairs. Here in this little episode is everything that makes Bond who he is and what makes him so fascinating to us. This sequence is funny, exciting, silly and cool. It begins with a visual gag and ends with a pithy one liner and in between we have an explosion, a wet suit, an impeccable white tuxedo underneath that wet suit, and a line of dialogue, “He won’t be using heroin-flavored bananas to finance revolutions anymore,” which may be the perfect line to get any tongue-in-cheek action picture off to the right start.
Goldfinger, the third Bond, remains one of the best because it takes the elements introduced in the previous two movies and perfects them. James Bond is no longer a work in progress but a fully realized character: arrogant, brutal, unforgiving and a lot of fun. The series also decides what it wants to be in Goldfinger: exciting, flippant, fatuous and a lot of fun.
In Central America, a bird wades on top of a lake at night. As it emerges out of the water, we realize that British agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is underneath it in a wet suit and SCUBA gear, using the bird as a literal decoy duck. On land, Bond breaks into a silo and applies a generous amount of plastic explosives. He returns out of the silo and removes his wet suit, improbably revealing the white tuxedo and somehow ending up with a red boutonniere in his hand to complete it. From there he enters a seedy nightclub and makes eyes at the belly dancer before the timed explosion scares off her and the rest of the patrons. The only person left is Bond’s contact who explains there’s a flight in an hour for him but that he shouldn’t go back to his hotel. This is sound advice, but the idea of the belly dancer is too much for Bond to pass up and when he arrives in his room he finds she’s there waiting for him. They embrace, but when he breaks his kiss with her, he sees in the reflection of her eye an oncoming attacker. He quickly moves her into the way of the assailant’s blow and throws him into the full bathtub, where the villain struggles for a gun before Bond throws a lamp in the water, frying him (death by electricity will be a trustee ally for Bond in Goldfinger).
The violence is shocking (Bond’s word, actually) because we are not used to seeing our movie heroes so quickly give up the well-being of women, but Bond has never been a typical movie hero. Remember, the woman who Bond mercilessly sacrifices is the one setting him up to be killed. It’s a stretch to call James Bond a feminist (especially when later in the same movie he will dismiss a woman from his “man talk” by giving her a stiff pat on her bottom), but his behavior is consistent along gender lines. Throughout his adventures many people will fall in the wake of James Bond’s ambitions; he works in a field where everybody is using everybody, but only he is the best at it. Patronizing ideas of chivalry, especially when it’s his skin hanging in the balance, never enter into it.
From there we get the glorious credits and then the plot of the movie gets rolling, but this five-minute minifilm (the “story” of this pre-credits sequence isn’t related to the overall narrative of Goldfinger) dominates my memory of the movie because it encapsulates the entire aura of the central character and establishes the tone that the movie will strike from that point on.
The rest of the movie involves the obsession of Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), an international businessman with a side business in smuggling. He has designs to break into Fort Knox, not to steal anything, but to set off an atomic bomb within its walls, rendering the gold supply of the United States radioactive and useless, thus increasing in value his own personal cache. Bond is dispatched to stop him, which means navigating his forcible bodyguard Odd Job (Harold Sakata), a man with an iron–rimmed hat who throws it like a Frisbee to decapitate his victims, and Goldfinger’s beautiful personal pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman, who should have earned an Academy Award nomination for being able to deliver the line, “My name is Pussy Galore,” without sounding completely ridiculous). Bond’s pursuit of Goldfinger takes him from Miami to Geneva to Kentucky and into increasingly more precarious situations. At one point he’s tied to a block as a powerful laser inches toward him. “Do you expect me to talk?” he asks Goldfinger. “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” Yet Bond always seems to defy expectations.
As a movie, Goldfinger doesn’t hit the high notes that Dr. No (1962) does. For one, it, more than other thrillers from the 1960s and even other Bond movies from the period, dates itself. By a pool, Bond wears a bizarre terry cloth “man onesie” that I’m pleased has worked its way out of men’s fashion; he insults the Beatles (not cool, James); and the raid on Fort Knox, which is coordinated by Blue Angels-style trick airplanes that disseminate nerve gas on the guards so they fall over awkwardly like rag dolls, is one of the hokiest schemes in a series of hokey schemes. Also, it’s not as well directed as some of the other early entries. In Dr. No, Terence Young has a cool, tension-filled style, expertly arranging scenes and paying them off. Guy Hamilton, helming Goldfinger doesn’t have Young’s ability to set-up a sequence, so the movie is competently told but uninspired. He does nice work during the laser scene in terms of suspense-building, less so in the similar climax when Bond battles a ticking time bomb (though watching the countdown clock eventually stop at “007” is one of the great pleasures in the entire series). Hamilton is also in love with a process of speeding up the film during action sequences to hide some of the special effects, but it just brings more attention to them. He would go on to direct three other James Bond movies that are much better told than this one, including the underrated Live and Let Die (1973).
However, as a Bond movie, Goldfinger is difficult to top. After two times out, it’s this movie that formalizes the best parts of the Bond formula. From the playful exposition set-ups with M16 chief M (Bernard Lee) and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) to the durable arrangement of megalomaniac, henchmen and moll, every scene in Goldfinger contains an element that’s classically Bond. This is the mold from which the best movies in the series will come. For the first time, Bond is given truly inventive gadgets from Q (Desmond Llewelyn), including a souped-up Aston Martin that comes complete with machine gun headlights, rotating license plates and the ever useful passenger seat ejector button. More than that, Goldfinger perfects the right tone. This is the funniest Bond movie of the early editions, sometimes painfully so (Bond has a number of snappy post-homicide lines worthy of eye-rolls), sometimes genuinely. Goldfingeris the first in the series to fully commit to how silly the character and his assignments are. The series lasts because the filmmakers marry that silliness to sophisticated and high-end production value in the action bits, and the pleasure of these movies is the whip–fast oscillation between casual cheek and breakneck exhilaration.
It’s this reason that Sean Connery is and remains the great James Bond, because he’s able to sell us both sides of the character. He’s seductive and charming but always dangerous, something we are never unaware of. Some of his successors would be better in one area; for example, Roger Moore was a wonderful flirt with the camera and Timothy Dalton was a sturdy action hero, but Moore never sold the dirty work and Dalton scowled through the charming stuff. Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig both have the knack to be lethal and lively (though Craig doesn’t get as many opportunities to showcase his charisma), but both are looking up at Connery, who was never better than in Goldfinger. It takes quite an actor to make us like a character who is a natural philanderer, cheats at golf and would just as soon sacrifice the body of a woman as he would insult the host’s brandy for being indifferently blended with an overuse of Bons Bois. Yet we do like James Bond because he does what we can’t, and what we are a little ashamed to admit that we want to, and because he stays mercifully on the screen, and in Goldfinger, nobody does it better.