Monday, April 16, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Goldfinger

Between them, ‘Dr No’ and ‘From Russia with Love’ set out the various elements of the formula: in the former, a megalomaniacal villain with an outrageous plan for world domination, exotic locations and beautiful women; in the latter, a tantalising pre-credits sequence, a big ballad theme song, the post-credits promise that Bond would return, and … er … more beautiful women.

‘Goldfinger’ put all of these elements together, went to town on the gadgets, and turned the whole thing up to eleven.

‘Goldfinger’ is either the quintessential Bond movie in terms of what a contemporary audience understands by (and expects of) a Bond movie, or it’s the point at which the rot set in. As cynical as I tend to be, I can’t quite bring myself to dislike ‘Goldfinger’ for setting the franchise on course for its mid-period formulaic turgidity. I ought to. And likewise, I ought to take it to task for sanding some of the rough edges off Bond, chamfering the character into a smooth adventurer rather a governmental blunt instrument. But, damn, it’s just too entertaining a movie for me to be mad at it for any real length of time. And, damn, if Shirley Bassey’s powerhouse theme song isn’t the definitive 007 chart-topper. And, double damn, if the Aston Martin DB5 (with or without modifications) isn’t the sexiest car ever made.

Moreover, none of the elements which so quickly became formulaic are particularly intrusive here; in fact, with only a couple of minor reservations, the film as a whole is as sleek and iconic as you could want a mainstream event movie to be. Director Guy Hamilton – helming his first Bond movie; he’d return, with variable degrees of success, for ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, ‘Live and Let Die’ and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ – eschews the shadowy espionage of Terence Young’s previous outing, sets out his stall with a bang (Bond blowing a drug plant sky-high in the pre-credits scene, before electrocuting an assassin and tossing out a one-liner: “Shocking, positively shocking”), then opens the film proper in sunny Miami Beach as Bond interrupts nemesis-in-waiting Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe)’s card-cheating system and dallies with his escort Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton).

Goldfinger is on M (Bernard Lee)’s radar as a potential gold smuggler. Bond crosses him in Miami, then crosses him again at an English club during a round of golf characterised by rampant cheating by both players. Goldfinger proves himself a bad loser, and when the portly megalomaniac gets pissed off his monosyllabic Korean manservant Oddjob (Harold Sakata) tends to do something about it. (Come to think of it, ‘Goldfinger’ adds another staple to the formula: troublesome sidekick whose social deficiencies emphasize the über-villain’s ostensible sophistication.)

From Miami Beach to England to Switzerland (globe-trotting: another franchise check-box) as Bond tracks Goldfinger to his European metallurgical headquarters, discovers how the smuggling works (pretty ingenious, actually) and realizes that Goldfinger is mixed up in more than just a bit of import-export without making the relevant customs declarations. What he is mixed up in involves Chinese nuclear physics experts, US underworld bosses and an all-girl flying circus led by the unsubtly-named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman).

Which brings us to a suitable place to consider those aforementioned reservations. ‘Goldfinger’ is the Ian Fleming novel I have the most trouble with. Not for the writing (it has the same Janet-and-John linguistic simplicity and narrative thrust of all the other Bonds) but because of the homophobia. Fleming settles on Pussy Galore as a lesbian for, seemingly, no other reason than to engage in a bit of gay-bashing, concluding with that teeth-grindingly reprehensible ideology – depressingly prevalent at the time Fleming was writing – that all a gay person needs to, ahem, straighten them out is a bit of vigorous straight sex from the right person.

Mercifully, the film – series regular Richard Maibaum co-scripted, this time with Paul Dehn (who went on to adapt John le Carre’s ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’, about as un-Bond-like a project as possible) – leaves Pussy’s preferences merely hinted at, while the inevitable Bond/Pussy clinch is as perfunctory as any of Bond’s conquests in the later movies. What Maibaum, Dehn and Hamilton replaced the homophobia with, however, was a trace element of misogyny that would burgeon as the series developed. Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s poem ‘Bond Girl’ expresses what I’m getting at:

The girls were something else. All that they earned
for being perfect examples of their kind –
Black, Asian, White – blonde, redhead or brunette,
groomed, beauty-parlourised, pleasing in bed,
mixing Martinis that were shaken not stirred,
using pearl varnish on their nails not red –
was death. A night (or 2) with 007,
then they were gilded till they could not breathe,
chucked to the sharks, shot, tortured, carried off
or found, floating face downward in a pool.

Honey Ryder in ‘Dr No’ was in the wrong place at the wrong time; Tatiana in ‘From Russia with Love’ was duped just as unsparingly as Bond; both were characters as opposed to mere trinkets. If ‘Goldfinger’ pulled together the franchise’s defining qualities in terms of guns, gadgets and globe-trotting, then it also defined the Bond girl: glamorous, willing and expendable. For all that Honor Blackman got third billing as Pussy Galore, it was Shirley Eaton who gave the film its most iconic image – a woman: naked, gilded, dead.

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