Every couple of years between now and the end of time, we can probably count on a new James Bond movie opening. It could be really good. It could be great. It could be fantastic. It could be The Third Man mixed with Lawrence of Arabia with a dash of Raiders of the Lost Ark thrown in.
And it will still be seen as the second best James Bond movie.
The reigning champion, after over 50 years, remains 1964’s Goldfinger.
Whether you’re a hardcore James Bond fan or a casual one, it’s just accepted canon that Sean Connery’s third outing as 007 cannot be topped. “Of all the Bonds, Goldfinger (1964) is the best, and can stand as a surrogate for the others,” Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star “Great Movies” review. “If it is not a great film, it is a great entertainment, and contains all the elements of the Bond formula that would work again and again.” Growing up as a hardcore James Bond fan, I accepted this view as settled law, and the Bond films of my own youth, from The Spy Who Loved Me to Octopussy, didn’t do much to sway me from that view. But, after a long absence, I watched Goldfinger again recently on the big screen, and something struck me.
This is one weird movie.
It is certainly the weirdest James Bond movie ever made; made weirder by the fact that everyone from Roger Ebert on down sees it as not just the best Bond movie ever, but the most Bond movie ever. Watch it again, a half-century later, and you see the classic elements that make it so iconic. But there are also a lot of very, very strange things going on that make it unlike any other Bond movie, particularly the sleek global entertainments that we know as “James Bond” films today.
Goldfinger strikes me as sort of a James Bond work dream, a nightmare 007 might have had after a night of too many canapés and shaken-not-stirred martinis, in which the familiar touchstones of his life are heightened, stretched, and distorted.
In Dr. No, Bond has to hunt down a megalomaniac who is messing with the U.S. missile program. In From Russia With Love, he has to rescue a Russian defector who has a sought-after Soviet code machine. In Goldfinger, he starts off trying to catch somebody cheating at cards? It’s like the world’s greatest secret agent is a cut-rate private investigator; maybe in You Only Live Twice he should have tried to catch Blofeld in bed with his mistress?
A therapist might have a field day examining what’s going on with the women in Goldfinger. First, and memorably, Bond beds Jill Masterson, Goldfinger’s assistant, only to see her be executed by Goldfinger by being painted gold. It’s not unusual for a secondary female love interest in a Bond movie to be killed to prove the villain’s dastardliness and give Bond fuel for revenge.
But then Bond runs into Jill’s sister, Tilly, and first-time viewers assume she’ll be the film’s main love interest, her frosty exterior melting in the face of Bond’s virile charm. And then she ALSO gets killed because of her run-in with Bond! Bond’s luck turns – sharply – when he finally meets the real love interest of Goldfinger, who has the name Pussy Galore.
Even by the standards of Bond girl names (“Holly Goodhead”), that goes beyond suggestive and into third-tier porn-star territory.
That therapist also might want to set aside a session for the scene in which Bond nearly gets castrated by a laser beam, which somehow distills the male one-upmanship underlying the hero-villain struggle of the Bond movies into a surreal image that feels like the stuff of Bond’s nightmares.
Also, a deadly hat?
We’re used to seeing James Bond as a man of action, and Goldfinger gives us a great car chase featuring his tricked-out Aston Martin. But after that, strangely, Bond remains a captive of Goldfinger for the last hour of the movie, able to sneak around a little under the watchful eyes of Goldfinger and his Chinese guards, but otherwise inactive. It makes for a strangely constrained film. The man of action spends a lot of time cooling his heels drinking mint juleps.
Speaking of that captivity, one of the silliest scenes in Bond movie history has 007 escape from his cell by pulling the old pantomime-elevator trick. Who knew he was such a gifted mime? Who knew Goldfinger’s guards were so dumb? Although 007 might not want to trumpet his smarts too loudly. Earlier in the film, during that car chase, what finally stops Bond’s Aston-Martin isn’t machine-gun fire or rival vehicles. He’s stopped when Goldfinger’s minions pull a giant mirror across the road, making Bond swerve so he doesn’t hit the oncoming “car.” Is James Bond a parakeet?
Some of the oddest things about Goldfinger are the things that aren’t odd – bits of the real world that suddenly seep into the hermetically-sealed fantasy world of 007. When Felix Leiter is tracking Oddjob’s car containing Bond’s tracking device in Kentucky, we see him driving on a completely ordinary American highway, with gas stations and car dealerships dotting the side of the road. The scene ends with Leiter in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken – hardly James Bond exotic.
And early in the film, Bond does something you never see in a James Bond film – he makes a pop culture reference. Specifically, he disses the Beatles! In 1964! It’s such a strange, jarring remark, not to mention suggesting that maybe James Bond isn’t so cool after all.
Goldfinger isn’t great despite these quirks, but because of them. It exists in this odd space that allows room for the predilections of Fleming’s original novels, the rough charm of the early Sean Connery Bonds, but also a first step into the silliness of the Roger Moore movies to come a decade later.
As Ebert says, all the elements are there – even if they sometimes don’t quite fit with each other. The villain, the car, the girls, the stunts – a James Bond movie is exactly the sum of its parts. And the parts in Goldfinger are top-notch. Even if the parts don’t quite fit with each other.
A killer hat though…