Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Goldfinger (1964)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Before we begin, a little music:



Although 1964's Goldfinger was the third official James Bond film, it was, in many ways, the first "James Bond Film." It was the first to feature a pre-credits "cold open" that was unrelated to the film's main plot, the first to introduce Bond's many gadgets, and the first to feature the Aston Martin DB5 that would become synonymous with Agent 007. More than anything, though, it laid out the basic structure for the majority of future Bond movies: an over-the-top villain, henchmen defined by a peculiar characteristic, a "Bond girl" who's killed by the villain, a second "Bond girl" who assists Bond (usually by getting involved with him), a heavy reliance on various gadgets and gizmos, and a tongue-in-cheek approach with sardonic one-liners.


It was more than that, though. Goldfinger marks the film where the series would detach itself from real-world political conflicts and instead become pure escapist entertainment. This was an important development for the franchise's future success: by refusing to connect Bond to any contemporary conflicts - or any real-world "villain," for that matter - the Broccoli family producers ensured that these films would have a certain level of accessibility regardless of the time period.

Which is good, considering that, for the most part, Goldfinger still plays well today as it did 50 years ago.

More after the jump.



Perhaps one of the best things that Goldfinger has going for it is director Guy Hamilton. By 1964, Hamilton was already a veteran of the industry, having worked as an assistant director on a number of films (including The Third Man) and graduated to directing his own films. The first two Bond films - 1962's Dr. No and 1963's From Russia With Love - had been directed by Terence Young, who did a more than capable job. But Hamilton brought to the series a wry sense of humor that coupled with more complex imagery, and the result is a film that's much more dynamic in it's zippy sense of adventure.

Which is good, because Goldfinger is perhaps the best example of a Bond film finding the right balance between exciting, over-the-top action and goofy stabs at humor. We get both right in the opening sequence, as Bond snorkels his way up to a compound to plant an explosive, then peels off his wetsuit to reveal a tuxedo underneath. It's undeniably silly, but Sean Connery absolutely sells it as suavity. Then comes the wit. After a hotel-room fight with a bad guy ends with Bond kicking an electrical device into the bathtub, frying the guy, Bond remarks:




And later, in case you missed that this was the year 1964, he makes the following comparison to drinking Dom Perignon champagne warm:


He always struck me as a Stones fan, anyway.

Goldfinger gets away with all kinds of silliness by playing it straight. There's the film's plot, which involves gold-loving Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) breaking into Fort Knox to irradiate the United States' gold supply, thus increasing the value of his personal bullion. There's Goldfinger's silent henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata), who has a razor-sharp blade hidden in the brim of his hat.


There's the aforementioned Aston Martin, complete with ejector seat. There's the film's most infamous image, when Goldfinger's former associate Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) gets involved with Bond and ends up dead, covered in gold paint:


And, perhaps most incredibly, there's the fact that the "Bond girl," played by Honor Blackman, is named Pussy Galore. That it was left unchanged by American censors alone should be considered one of the franchise's greatest accomplishments.


Before we get back to the visual appreciation, let's give a great deal of credit to Connery's turn as Bond. He was the first actor to play Bond, and he did so in six different films (seven if you include the non-canon Never Say Never Again). But he absolutely nailed the balance of dry wit, silver-tongued charm, suave '60s masculinity, and steely brutality of the character, perhaps better than any other actor to have taken on the role. To their credit, Roger Moore was hammier, Timothy Dalton was more dapper, Pierce Brosnan was more charming, and Daniel Craig more thuggish, but none of them have quite landed the same precise mix that Connery did (the less said about George Lazenby, the better). And all of them owe a debt to Connery for having such a full-formed understanding of the character.

Now, on to the visual appreciation:


Now, on to the visual appreciation of the film. Hamilton and director of photography Ted Moore shoot much of this film from wide-angles, which makes the film look "big." Take, for instance, the interior of Fort Knox. The set is relatively spare, with the device placed directly in the middle of the floor. But the camera is often placed far away, letting the audience see how spacious the room actually is. What's truly impressive about this is how the gates meant to keep intruders out suddenly become the cage that Bond is trapped in, and Hamilton and Moore frame these shots as if they were in a prison:



This comes back in Bond's showdown with Oddjob. The fight itself is mostly shot at a medium distance, but when Oddjob ends up being fried by an electrical wire on the gate (this film has a thing for electrocution), it pulls back to show us the entire thing.


Somehow, this makes it seem like an even more terrifying death than a close-up of Oddjob's clinched face possibly could have.

But what impressed me the most about the visuals in this film are the ways that different shots are layered. Take, for example, this shot from the middle of the film, when Bond is tracking Goldfinger across Switzerland.

*Best Shot*

The top-most layer of the frame features a woman - later revealed to be Jill's sister, Tilly (Tania Mallet) - pointing a gun into the valley below. But who is she aiming at? That's Bond in the frame's middle layer, who in turn is gazing down at Goldfinger and Oddjob at a fruit stand by the river. It's an impressive structure for the frame: the barrel of Tilly's gun directs our attention further down the frame, but it's unclear whether she's aiming at Bond or Goldfinger. Hamilton successfully creates a suspenseful shot simply through the positioning of the characters and layering of the frame. It's a terrific example of maximizing the effect of the visuals.


Hamilton's direction, perhaps more than any other element, helped define what the James Bond film franchise would look like in the coming years. He would direct three other installments - Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Live and Let Die (1973), and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) - but you can see his fingerprints on nearly every film since then. James Bond may have sprung from the mind of Ian Fleming, but the Bond we know and love comes from Hamilton.

**Fun fact: Goldfinger also marked the first time that a laser ever appeared on film. What an iconic introduction, too.

1 comment:

NATHANIEL R said...

I had a few runner ups to my choice and that long shot of OddJob's electrocution was one of them.