Goldfinger

goldfinger-poster

TRIGGER WARNING: This review discusses a scene which contains sexual assault.

Goldfinger is the ur-Bond movie. It is the Platonic ideal of Bond movies. Watching it with only a cursory knowledge of James Bond is to experience a series of “Oh, so that’s where that came from” moments. Sure, a lot of Bond’s lines, music, and tropes were first established in the previous two movies, but it’s in Goldfinger that it feels like it’s all finally come together to create the quintessential form of James Bond. This is the entry that feels like the creators are fully aware of who James Bond is and are comfortable enough with him as a character to start poking fun at him. There’s a classic villain with a classic henchman. For the first time, the movie’s theme song plays over the opening credits. Bond finally gets his classic car, an array of gadgets, and he gets to say both “Bond, James Bond,” and “Martini, shaken not stirred.” This is James Bond.

That said, being the ultimate Bond movie doesn’t mean it’s a perfect movie. Its narrative loses all momentum in the second half, Bond essentially becomes a supporting character in his own movie as he’s led from scene to scene by other characters who are actually influencing the plot, and Bond does something near the end that is so heinous and offensive that, in a film series notorious for its disgusting sexism, stands out as a particular black mark on the franchise.

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Goldfinger starts pretty much perfectly. Bond, decked out in scuba gear with a fake plastic duck glued to his head, infiltrates a mysterious base, knocking out a guard and planting explosives in a gigantic tanker. He makes it back to his extraction point and unzips his wetsuit to reveal a perfectly tailored white tuxedo underneath. He walks into a bar to meet with a liaison as the explosives go off, casually ordering a drink while the crowd runs outside to see what happened. Then Bond goes to meet a lady in her hotel room. Just as they’re about to kiss, he sees an attacker in the reflection in her eye. A scrappy brawl ensues and Bond kills the guy by electrocuting him in a bathtub. He quips, “Shocking,” at both the electrocuted man and the woman who betrayed him, and walks out.

Essentially, we’re getting a peek at the tail end of a Bond mission. There’s the supporting friend character and a Bond Girl, but the movie never comes back to them. The scene implies that Bond so often does sweet spy stuff that the movies don’t even bother showing them all. It’s a stellar sequence that encapsulates everything that’s fun and alluring about James Bond.

What follows in the first half of the movie continues to be exemplary Bond material. Bond spends some time at a swinging Miami hotel and receives his mission to tail the eccentric gold dealer Auric Goldfinger and figure out how he smuggles his gold into and out of the UK. The mission initially feels rather pedestrian for a spy of Bond’s caliber. Luckily for Bond and the movie, Goldfinger has far more devious and grand plans than is first let on.

goldfinger-poolside

Goldfinger may be the archetype for a Bond villain (along with Blofeld, though he hasn’t fully appeared at this point in the series), but he’s an odd, goofy character at the start. He’s first introduced poolside at Bond’s swanky Miami hotel in some adorable little shorts. Bond discovers that Goldfinger has been cheating at a card game by having his assistant Jill Masterson spy on his opponent’s cards with binoculars and radio the info to him via a painfully obvious earpiece. So Bond blackmails Goldfinger into losing the game and, to add insult to injury, seduces Jill. It’s not an intro that exactly inspires fear.

The movie teases at Goldfinger’s murderous nature when Bond discovers Jill in bed, painted entirely gold, dead from skin suffocation, but after that we continue to see Goldfinger as an awkward goof and Bond always looks effortlessly in control of every scene. The two play golf together and, after catching Goldfinger cheating, Bond tricks Goldfinger by switching out his balls, beating him on a technicality. Bond one-ups the villain and looks impossibly cool while doing it. It seems like a poor way to establish a movie’s villain but it’s completely intentional. Goldfinger is waiting to pull the rug out from under you.

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While it’s underselling its villain, Goldfinger’s first half clips along at a steady pace. We get another solid scene with Moneypenny and Bond doing their lovey schtick, take a tour through MI6’s silly Q Branch, which creates a fun dynamic between Bond and Q where Bond underappreciates all the tech and Q gets more and more frustrated, finally get to see the classic Bond car, the Aston Martin DB5, and meet Oddjob and his comically strong (heavy? sharp?) hat. It’s a fun series of scenes that flesh out Bond’s world and establish it as being just slightly left of our reality.

Bond tracks Goldfinger to Geneva, Switzerland where he meets Tilly, Jill’s sister, who wants revenge on Goldfinger. She’s introduced with a sniper rifle in hand and has no time for Bond’s gross BS. She interrupts a “Bond, James Bond” and refutes every attempt of Bond’s to get close to her. Bond learns that Goldfinger is working on something called “Operation Grand Slam” with a Chinese official and then accidentally sets off an alarm, embroiling him and Tilly in a car chase. Tilly is killed by Oddjob, Oddjob tricks Bond into crashing the Aston Martin with some very conveniently placed mirrors, and Bond is captured. This is the beginning of Bond being completely incompetent. Once he sets off that alarm, Bond basically stumbles his way through the rest of the movie, accomplishing nothing.

Goldfinger (1964)

Before we get to that though, the first half of the movie ends with one of the best scenes in the Bond franchise so far: the laser scene. This is where Goldfinger reveals his true nature, setting a laser to cut Bond in half starting at his groin: the perfect punishment for Bond. Goldfinger’s happy, unfazed disposition takes on a new element as he waits for Bond to be brutally mutilated, and his classic line, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” is delivered with such joy that it’s almost infectious. There’s also a cool, subtle bit of worldbuilding as Bond lies about a 008 knowing what Goldfinger is up to. It’s not much, but the idea that there are other spies out there similar to Bond, is an intriguing concept. Before his junk in shredded in half, Bond manages to convince Goldfinger that having an MI6 spy as a captive could be useful. The laser is turned off and Bond is knocked out.

Okay, the second half. First Bond sits around on a plane. Then he sits around in a jail cell. He learns that Goldfinger’s plan is to irradiate the gold at Fort Knox in order to make his own gold’s value skyrocket. He smuggles the information out of Goldfinger’s complex, but, by coincidence, his note is destroyed. Then Bond sits around a farm. Then he sits around in a truck. Then he stands around at Fort Knox. He kills Oddjob in a clumsy and slow fight. Then he can’t diffuse Goldfinger’s bomb and luckily someone else shows up to do it. Then he gets in a fight with Goldfinger on a plane, but luckily Goldfinger accidentally shoots out a window and gets sucked out. Really the only thing that Bond does in the second half of the movie is kill Oddjob, and even then one of the dozens of soldiers who came into the vault seconds later could have done that.

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There are a couple of jokes that acknowledge Bond’s poor situation that land quite well. M learns that Bond is in America thanks to a tracker in Bond’s shoe and M, though a little surprised at the news, says that Bond clearly must be on top of things. Cut to Bond being held prisoner. Later, Felix (now played by a new actor who’s more “affable dad” than “Bond’s American equivalent” like the actor in Dr. No) says something like, “If Bond needs help, he’ll call us,” and then we smash cut to Bond sitting in a jail cell. These gags work well, but that doesn’t change the fact that Bond spends half the movie in captivity and unable to do anything.

Bond is almost entirely ineffective on the plot of the movie, but there is one thing that he does to save the day at the end. In order to keep Goldfinger from crop dusting Fort Knox with toxic nerve gas, Bond has to convince Pussy Galore, the woman who leads Goldfinger’s squadron of planes, to switch sides. Bond’s irresistible allure being used to convince women to betray the bad guys and join his team isn’t new (he basically does the same thing to Tatiana in From Russia With Love), but, it functions completely differently in this movie due to two major factors. Firstly, unlike Tatiana, Pussy is a lesbian, and, secondly, Tatiana consents to sleeping with Bond, Pussy does not.

It’s never made textual in the movie, but in the original novel of Goldfinger, Pussy Galore is a lesbian. She straight up tells Bond that she’s a lesbian because she was sexually abused by a family member as a child (which is a deeply problematic assertion in its own right). In the movie, none of this is mentioned. Instead, it’s implied in a few different scenes, particularly when Pussy denies sleeping with Goldfinger (she’s actually the second woman in Goldfinger’s employ that Bond insinuates is being paid to sleep with Goldfinger) and further when she tells Bond, “You can turn off the charm. I’m immune.” So, the first big problem: Goldfinger implies that Bond “turned” Pussy Galore straight by having sex with her.

The second gigantic problem with the scene is that it Bond physically forces himself on Pussy. In the scene, Bond asks her, “What would it take for you to see things my way?” and Pussy responds, “A lot more than you’ve got,” another implication that Pussy is gay. Still, Bond repeatedly grabs her by the arm, forcing her close to him. Being versed in Judo, Pussy throws Bond on the ground. Bond gets up, throws Pussy to the ground, holds her down, and forces her to kiss him. She struggles the entire time until, poof, she “turns” straight and starts kissing him back. The rest is implied.

The movie wants to play the scene as fun and even romantic (similar to the rape scenes in Rocky and Blade Runner), but it’s not. It’s sexual assault. The sequence stains the rest of the movie and Bond in particular. Before this scene, Bond has been too forward, pushy, and all-around sexist in his interactions with women, but those relationships have always hung on the idea that Bond is so handsome and so cool that all women are inherently attracted to him. It’s obviously male wish fulfillment, but it also means that all the women Bond has had sex with have wanted to be with him too. But, presumably in an attempt to appeal more and more to the men in the audience who reveled in that wish fulfillment, the director, writers, and producers turned up Bond’s womanizing notch by notch until they crossed a line. The scene between Bond and Pussy is that step too far.

The inclusion of the rape scene is even more frustrating due to the fact that Goldfinger, at least at the start, feels like it could have been the first step of correcting the series’ sexism, which, up to this point, had been increasing with each movie. Yes, Bond’s sexism is still there from the start (at the Miami hotel, Bond meets with Felix and tells the woman he’s with that it’s time for “man talk” and taps her on the butt as she walks away), but the movie also makes jokes at Bond’s expense about it. M chastises Bond for his womanizing and tells him to be more disciplined. Bond is in the middle of tailing Goldfinger in Geneva, when he first sees Tilly. He’s about to abandon his mission to go talk to her, when he tells himself, “Discipline, 007, discipline.” When they two do meet, Tilly interrupts Bond’s “Bond, James Bond” and clearly has no time for his crap. After Bond’s been captured, an American agent following Bond’s tracking device wonders where Bond could be going and Felix comments, “Bet you 10 to 1, it’s a drink or a dame.” This is the first Bond movie that is self-aware of who Bond is and it makes jokes at that perception of him. It’s enough to give you hope that the producers are also self-aware enough to steer away from the worse parts of Bond’s character, but that’s not what happens. The movie makes jokes about Bond being a gross womanizer and then ramps up that side to him to its terrible, inevitable conclusion.

It’s harder to imagine a movie making a bigger faceplant after such a fun first half, but Goldfinger somehow manages it. After one of the best scenes the series has had up to this point, it just completely loses all narrative momentum. There are some good moments afterwards (Bond’s goofy jail cell escape and the twist with Army men, in particular), but they’re not nearly enough to save the movie from itself. The second half is an hour of Bond doing nothing to drive the plot and then sexually assaulting a gay woman.

Goldfinger is the model Bond film. From the villain to the Bond Girls to the Q Branch to the car to the henchman to that iconic laser scene, it establishes what a Bond movie should be. But in retrospect, free of rose-tinted glasses that might make one kinder to the movie that set the bar for all its successors, it’s also a deeply flawed movie. The first half may be terrific but the second half fails it spectacularly.

Current Bond Ranking

  1. From Russia With Love
  2. Goldfinger
  3. Dr. No
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