In a development that really shouldn’t surprise anyone, the third film in our Licence To Watch marathon is Goldfinger. A well recognised classic of the Bond canon it is held up as the template upon which many future entries were based. But is it really worthy of this revered status?
Let’s get something straight from the start: Goldfinger is an awesome film which well deserves its iconic stature. It has all the hallmarks of the archetypal Bond film: a pre-credits sequence (that adds almost nothing to the plot); a blockbusting theme song; a slew of immortal one-liners; girls; gadgets; multiple locations. Not only that but the sexual politics are enough to keep critical debates flourishing for decades.
But this film shouldn’t be called Goldfinger: it should be called Hamfisted (“Haaaahm-FIST-ed!… He’s the man, the man with the fist of haaaaaahm….”) because James Bond spends at least 99 per cent of the movie totally bollocksing things up.
Let’s start from the beginning. Bond is on a mission to blow up a drug laboratory—which he does actually succeed in doing—but on the pretext of reporting to his local contact he sticks around for a drink afterwards. When the lab finally goes up (and let’s not ask why someone keeps several canisters of explosive conveniently stacked in their workplace) everyone panics and runs, as you would, except for Bond who maintains his trademark unflappable chill.
Unfortunately this means that our secret agent blends in about as effectively as Donald Trump in a hair salon and is more than enough to tip off his girlfriend du jour. Or something. I really have no idea what’s going on with those two…
Sure enough, when Bond returns to his room for some ‘unfinished business’ he is very nearly taken out by an equally hamfisted assassin who has somehow reasoned that a blunt stick is a far better weapon than either a knife or a gun. Bond is only alerted to the prospect of his untimely … bruising by the reflection of the assassin in his girlfriend’s eye (let’s remember that Bond already took his gun off so he really didn’t see this coming, until he literally did see it coming). Luckily Bond has a human shield: his girlfriend; and it’s lucky for her that the assassin is only wielding a blunt stick. After a brief struggle Bond dispatches the assassin, but only after coming within microseconds of being shot.
Suffice to say Bond hardly distinguishes himself. In fact the whole experience proves so traumatic that he gets to take a recuperative break in Miami.
Now Bond finally starts on his real mission: observing the mysterious Auric Goldfinger. But Bond can’t even do that: instead of doing some, you know, spying, he breaks into Goldfinger’s apartment, steals his girlfriend, engages the Big Bad directly and then goes on to truly earn his wrath by forcing him to lose his card game (badly). The immediate outcome of Bond’s meddling is that Jill Masterson, Goldfinger’s sort-of-but-not girlfriend, gets revenge-killed in just about the most elaborate way possible.
And why doesn’t Goldfinger have Bond killed? Buggered if I know…
After this Bond beats Goldfinger at golf by cheating. Sure, Goldfinger cheats first (unless you think that Bond standing on Goldfinger’s missing ball is cheating… which it is) but Bond still has to resort to cheating to win the game. This really gets Goldfinger’s goat.
Let’s remember that Bond, despite using his real name left, right and centre, is supposed to be working undercover. One of the best ways of remaining undercover (other than not using your real name … oh, wait, what if Bond, James Bond *isn’t* his real name…?) is to hide your real motives from your target. You could quite fairly argue that giving your target the message: “Hey, I’m here to royally fuck around with you!” is not an effective way of achieving this.
A quick trip to Switzerland and Bond nearly screws up again when he starts to give chase to a female motorist (Tilly Masterson), but he just about manages to remember his job (“Discipline, 007”) and stays on Goldfinger’s tail instead. This ultimately proves a bad move when Tilly almost shoots Bond in the back of his head. In retribution Bond destroys half her car, while travelling at high speed, and then acts relieved when she somehow manages to not be hideously killed in the resulting crash.
However, Bond has yet to truly excel himself. For a short while he actually does a pretty good job of spying on Goldfinger: successfully learning how the man smuggles his gold (the original mission) and overhearing mention of ‘Operation Grand Slam’ in one convenient conversation. Then it all goes wrong when he spots Tilly Masterson pretending to be an actress–I mean, pretending to be an assassin and decides to surprise her instead of, you know, staying undercover.
As a direct result of Bond’s action a trip wire is triggered and alarms start going off everywhere. What then follows is a pretty gripping car chase, in which we get to see most of the Aston Martin’s modifications at play, until Bond and Masterson are finally cornered. At this point Bond chooses to remain safely behind his bullet-proof car while sending Tilly, unarmed, to run off into a darkened forest, whereupon she is (rather abruptly) killed by Oddjob.
So, to be clear: Bond’s actions have now resulted in the deaths of two women; had our pre-credits assassin been better armed it would have been three. I’m not suggesting Bond has a major problem with women (he clearly does), more that he seems really, really good at getting other people into trouble.
So Bond is then captured by the bad guys, something he achieves quite easily by standing up in plain sight, walking over to Tilly’s corpse and then meekly handing over his gun to Oddjob. Again, why the bad guys don’t just shoot him during this (he is still armed to that point, after all, and has been happily shooting them all) is something that we’re best not spending any time thinking about.
Shortly afterwards Bond manages to escape, gets shot at by an old lady in the process, and then crashes his car into a brick wall because apparently he’s now scared of orange lights.
We next have one of the most famous scenes in the entire Bond series: 007 is strapped to a table, helpless, with a laser pointedly inching its way towards his groin. It’s elaborate, and potentially really messy, but it looks like the game’s really up for Bond. Goldfinger has no interest in sparing him, he’s almost out of the room before Bond’s desperate mention of ‘Operation Grand Slam’ gets his attention once more.
So, Bond doesn’t get out of this fix with fearsome ninja skills, or a clever laser-disabling gadget, or a hidden mirror in his pocket, or because he can Houdini his way off the table. No, he escapes because he was lucky enough to overhear something and takes a desperate chance that Goldfinger will be paranoid enough to keep him alive because, at this point, we have to presume that Goldfinger is also thinking that 008 must be much, much better at all of this than Bond.
What follows is a large section of the movie—almost its entire remaining duration—in which Bond is basically Goldfinger’s prisoner. On several occasions he tries to get the attention of his colleagues on the outside, but fails hard each time. He fails to get rescued after activating his ‘homer’ device (because M thinks he must have everything well in hand); he fails to alert the authorities to Goldfinger’s plan by hiding his ‘homer’ in the unfortunate Mr Solo’s pocket (because: squish); and he even fails to escape after being found and easily disarmed by Pussy Galore (watch carefully: she’s so confident in her ability to subdue Bond that she doesn’t even keep hold of his gun).
We could have a whole essay covering the scene in which Bond finally manages to seduce Pussy Galore but, in terms of the plot, this is the only instance where he succeeds in having any significant impact on Goldfinger’s plans. Up to this point he has: done his very best to ensure that Goldfinger has been alerted to his presence; managed to potentially save Goldfinger’s life by interrupting Tilly Masterson’s revenge plans; been Goldfinger’s prisoner for much of the film. Had Pussy Galore turned out to be a bit more cold-hearted then Bond would have ended up dead and Fort Knox would be radioactive rubble.
As it is Bond enters the climax of the film not ready to take on the band guys single-handed, but instead handcuffed to a nuclear bomb (if you’re going to go out, go out in style, but it’s not the best way to get one up on your enemies). Luckily the one guy holding the keys to those handcuffs gets himself conveniently murdered right in front of Bond; allowing him the freedom to get beaten up by Oddjob for a while before despatching the henchman in one of the film’s other iconic scenes (in fact, it’s just about the only scene I remember from watching the film as a very young child).
We’re then treated to Bond’s dithering as he tries to guess the best way of defusing a nuclear bomb (by the time Octopussy comes around he’s apparently taken a course). Just as he’s about to pull out a handful of randomly selected wires a nuclear expert dives in to save the day. It’s not explicit but there’s a clear impression that what Bond was about to do would have been BAD, as in big-bad-a-boom-BAD.
Note: Bond does NOT defuse the bomb. Bond does NOT save the day.
Last minute cock-ups
But it’s not over yet, oh no. Instead of running off to rescue Pussy Galore (who is the one who really saved the day and who is now almost certainly the prisoner of a very, very angry Mr.Goldfinger) Bond flies off to have lunch with the President. It turns out Goldfinger wants to deal with Bond first and we get the traditional final face-off with the villain. I’m pretty sure that it’s Bond who fires the gun here, despite having warned both Pussy and Goldfinger about the dangers of firing guns inside plans. Anyway, Bond defeats Goldfinger, sort of, and both he and Pussy are saved.
Except… they’re not. While Pussy Galore sensibly tries to get the attention of the rescue plan out looking for them, Bond decides it’s more important that they have a snog and pulls her away. The rescue plane blithely flies off into the distance leaving the ex-lesbian and woman-murderer to a brief future of rampant sex and inevitable cannibalism.
What’s remarkable is that, in spite of the seeming incompetence of our hero, Goldfinger is still a fantastic film. I watched it twice in two nights and was enthralled on both occasions. It has, obviously, dated in some areas but still manages to come across as fresh and riveting due to some snappy editing, the oft-changing stakes, and the clever use of technology (lasers, car crushers, Aston Martins).
Bond getting captured by the villain is a trope of the series, right from Dr.No, but it’ll be interesting to see if any future instalments render him quite as inept as writers Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn make him here.
Next up: Thunderball.