Sunday, June 1, 2014

Goldfinger: When James Bond Movies Truly Became JAMES BOND Movies

One would be hard pressed to find a more successful film franchise than the James Bond films. The first film in the series, Dr. No, was released in 1962. Over fifty years later the Bond series is still going strong, with the 23rd film in the series, Skyfall, having been released in 2012. Not only has the Bond series been phenomenally successful, but it has had a lasting impact on Anglo-American pop culture. Indeed, in the Sixties Dr. No helped bring a spy craze to the United States that had begun in the United Kingdom with shows such as The Avengers and Danger Man. The spy craze would not only lead to more films featuring 007, but a plethora of spy films, including entire series of movies featuring such spies as Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), Derek Flint (James Coburn), and Matt Helm (Dean Martin).

Of course, it was the Bond series that set the pace for many of the spy films that were released throughout the Sixties. Today when people think of the Bond movies they think of beautiful women, its gun barrel opening, its pre-credit sequences, over the top plots by truly nefarious villains, high tech gadgets, and themes songs sung by popular artists that play over highly stylised credit sequences (often centred on the female figure). As hard it is to believe given how strongly linked as these elements are to James Bond, many of these elements were either not present in or did not figure prominently in the first two Bond movies, Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963). Quite simply, it was with Goldfinger that Bond Movies truly became James Bond movies.

As might be expected many of the elements we today associate with the Bond movies were present from the very first movie. Chief among these are beautiful women. No less than three beauties figure prominently in Dr. No: Ursula Andress (who played what remains many people's favourite Bond Girl, Honey Ryder), Eunice Gayson (who played Bond's London girl friend, Syliva Trench), and, of course, Lois Maxwell (who played Miss Moneypenny).  Dr. No also features the very first gun barrel opening (with stunt man Bob Simmons standing in for Sean Connery). The plot of Dr. No is also truly, well, Bondian and its villain truly nefarious. Quite simply Dr. No (played by Joseph Wiseman) is disrupting rocket launches from Cape Canaveral. Dr. No also featured a highly stylised credit sequence in which the feminine form figured prominently. That having been said, Dr. No had very little in the way of high tech gadgets and it lacked a theme song sung by a popular singer (it is Monty Norman's  "James Bond Theme" that plays over the opening credits).

From Russia with Love would continue the precedent set by Dr. No of featuring beautiful women (in this case Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova). And if anything its credit sequence was even more stylised and even more centred on the feminine form than the credit sequence of Dr. No. That having been said, while From Russia with Love features some very nefarious villains (namely, Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb), it's plot is not quite as over the top as those of other Bond films. (SPECTRE wants to steal a cryptographic device from the Soviets). While From Russia with Love does feature a theme song sung by a popular singer ("From Russia with Love" sung by Matt Monro), it is not played over the opening credits.

This is not to say that From Russia with Love would not introduce some of the better known elements associated with the Bond series. From Russia with Love is the first movie in the series to have a pre-credit sequence (I won't spoil it here, as it is also one of the best pre-credit sequences). From Russia with Love would also be the first Bond film in which gadgets have a significant role. Indeed, it is the very first film to feature Desmond Llewelyn as the head of "Q" Branch. Here it must be pointed out that while From Russia with Love is the first Bond film in which gadgets feature prominently, the gadgets in the film are a bit more humble than those in later 007 movies. Among the gadgets in From Russia with Love are 007's pager (it might not sound terribly high tech today, but one must consider that the Bell System had just introduced them in 1962), a tape recorder disguised as a camera, and a device for detecting electronic bugs.

In the end people familiar with later Bond films might be surprised by the ways in which Dr. No and From Russia with Love differ from later Bond movies. While the two films feature many of the elements familiar from the later Bond films, they also lack many of the elements audiences would come to take for granted in films in the series. This is not the case with Goldfinger. For the first time all of the elements viewers associate with Bond movies are in place. While Dr. No and From Russia with Love are recognisably Bond movies, of the early films its is Goldfinger that sums up the series for many.

Indeed, if anything Goldfinger built upon the elements introduced in the first two movies. With regards to beautiful women, the film starred Shirley Eaton, Tania Mallet, and Honor Blackman (fresh from her stint as Cathy Gale on The Avengers) playing a character with the rather unlikely name of Pussy Galore. Goldfinger also featured one of the more notable pre-credit sequences, with James Bond single handedly infiltrating and taking out a drug factory. It was with its plot (truly Bondian in scope) and its villain, however, that Goldfinger truly expanded upon elements introduced in Dr. No. Auric Goldfinger (played by Gert Fröbe) was arguably one of the greatest villains in the history of the Bond franchise, if not the greatest. It is not enough that Goldfinger has one single abiding obsession in his life (namely, gold) and is willing to get his hands on more. Goldfinger is also ruthless and extremely sadistic, to the point that one has to wonder what he loves more, gold or causing people pain. He also has some wit and a rather warped sense of humour. Indeed, Goldfinger might have the greatest line in any Bond movie, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!" As to his plot, well, one can't get much more Bondian than detonating a nuclear weapon inside Fort Knox.

While gadgets were introduced into the Bond franchise with From Russia with Love, Goldfinger took Bond's gadgets to a whole other level. Indeed, in the pre-credit sequence alone James Bond uses a diving mask cleverly disguised as a seagull and a grappling gun. Later we see Q's laboratory for the very first time in the series' history. In Q's lab we see a parking meter that dispenses tear gas, a Thermos flask with a grenade hidden in its base, and a bullet proof vest. Bond himself uses several gadgets in the film. Perhaps the most humble are homing devices (one of which he keeps hidden in his razor).  Perhaps the most notable is the Aston Martin DB5 (introduced in this film), although I guess it is debatable if it is one big gadget or a platform for several smaller gadgets. The Aston Martin has revolving number plates, with individual plates for the United Kingdom, France, and Switzerland. It also has a dashboard capable of tracking homing devices. Among the Aston Martin's other devices are hidden machine guns, an oil slick dispenser, an ejector seat, and bullet proof screens. Of course, Bond isn't the only person with gadgets in Goldfinger, as Auric Goldfinger has his share as well. The most notable of these is his famous laser table, but then he also has a trick billiards table, nerve gas, and, of course, an atomic bomb.

Goldfinger also took the credits sequence to a whole new level. Designed by Robert Brownjohn, the credit sequence featured clips of 007, Goldfinger, and so on projected upon the body of glamour model Margaret Nolan coated in gold. As remarkable as the credit sequence was, however, the true innovation of Goldfinger was that for the first time a theme song sung by a popular singer played over the credits. "Goldfinger" was written by John Barry, Leslie Bricusse, and Anthony Newley and performed by Dame Shirley Bassey. At that point in her career Dame Shirley Bassey was already an established singing star, having had hits with  "As Long As He Needs Me",  "What Now My Love", and "I (Who Have Nothing)", among other songs. Not surprisingly, "Goldfinger" provided her with another hit. It went to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, #21 on the British singles chart, and did very well throughout Europe. Over the years several theme songs to Bond movies have become hits on both sides of the Pond.

Goldfinger debuted in London on 17 September 1964 and was released in the United States on 25 December 1964. The movie proved phenomenally successful, even more so than Dr. No or From Russia with Love. In the United States alone it grossed $124,900,000. It was also the highest grossing film in the United States for 1964, beating out such heavyweights as Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady. Eon Productions can then hardly be blamed if they looked to Goldfinger as the blueprint for the majority of Bond movies to come. Indeed, if anything its immediate successor, Thunderball, upped the ante when it came to gadgets and larger than life plots.

It was with Goldfinger that all of the elements identified with the Bond series fell into place. Goldfinger featured beautiful women, the gun barrel sequence, a pre-credit sequence, a diabolical villain with a bigger than life plot, gadgets galore, and a theme song sung by a popular artist set against a highly stylised credits sequence. Goldfinger was not the first James Bond movie. Arguably it is not even the greatest Bond movie ever made. That having been said, Goldfinger was the film that largely set the pace for most Bond movies to come. It was arguably the point where James Bond movies truly became James Bond movies.


Joe Thompson said...

I like your thoughts on the progression of the first three Bond films. Back before we had the IMDB, when film historians did not write about things like the Bond films, I didn't know in what order they had been made. I finally learned it from Mad Magazine when they did a parody of all the Bond films to date, in order. That was one of my favorite movie parodies.

Fritzi Kramer said...

Thanks for the fascinating review. I very much enjoyed your thoughts on WHY Goldfinger is considered so iconic in the Bond universe. So many little details that came together for the first time...

Spiritually Cramped said...

Probably my favourite Bond. Thanks for reminding me of all the reasons why I loved it, and how influential it was. The Barbican centre hosted a wonderful Bond retrospective exhibition a couple of years ago, and seeing the Goldfinger Aston Martin was my highlight!

Silver Screenings said...

I'm not the world's biggest 007 fan, but I really appreciated your post, Like Fritzi said, I didn't really know why "Goldfinger" was so important. Now I know!

Enjoyed your post very much.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Goldfinger is our favorite of the Connery 007 films, and you put into words just what makes it so iconic. As many fans as the new Craig films are garnishing, we're still lamenting the loss of the Bond films that we knew, with all of their now so-called cliches.


Very good post! I agree Goldfinger became the most important Bond film because it not only introduced many well-known Bond characteristics, but also for the supporting cast. By the way, the scene with the woman turned into a gold statue will never leav my mind.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)