Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Do you expect me to talk? No, I expect you to die! Goldfinger turns 50

So let me hit you with this statement: Goldfinger is the best James Bond movie. Ever.

Yes, Skyfall was a brilliant piece of drama; From Russia With Love was the perfect Cold War thriller; Diamonds Are Forever had the right mix of action and goofiness; The Spy Who Loved Me had the Lotus Esprit and Goldeneye successfully rebooted the whole franchise. 

But pound for pound, scene for scene, gag for gag, Goldfinger - which had it's world premiere in London 50 years ago today - contained all the right elements to make it the most perfect Bond film of all time, providing the source code for not only the 20 'official' films that have followed (plus 'Bond 24' due to start production later this year), but all the many spoofs and blatant (and not-so blatant) ripoffs.

Although Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had established Bond as an action hero for a paranoid 1960s two years before with Dr. No (which opened 11 days before the Cuba missile crisis almost plunged the world into the ultimate world war), Goldfinger, the third Bond film, delivered the goods that we've now come to expect from the series - gadgets, girls, extraordinary plots and understated humour.

To start with, it stars Sean Connery, for most people, the perfect Bond. The first two films had catapulted the former milkman, body builder and bit-part actor to the front line, but Goldfinger shot his star even higher. Think Tom Cruise today. Only taller. And a lot less annoying.

Secondly, it was directed by Guy Hamilton. No disrespect to Sam Mendes for his intellectual, theatrical approach to Skyfall, or to Terence Young who captured the darker, less playful side to Ian Fleming's character with Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball, but Hamilton turned Bond into movie gold, if you will, perfecting the balance of humour and action (something some later Bonds got wrong, especially during the Roger Moore era).

The opening scene, in which a wet-suited Bond emerges from the water to blow something up, before getting out of his wetsuit to reveal himself to be already dinner suited and booted, prompted as many laughs as it did gasps. But nobody thought it was silly.

And there is Shirley Bassey's theme song - "Gold-fing-gah!" - which not only established Dame S as the quintessential Bond theme singer, but John Barry's formula for the instantly-recognisable Bond them, all strings, brass and drama.

With lyrics by Anthony Newley (one of David Bowie's earliest influences), Barry wrote the music without much direction from the film's production team, short of the name 'Goldfinger' as the core of the song. Michael Caine, then Barry's flatmate, was the first to hear the distinctive "ba-bah-bah" motif, and reportedly dismissed it as sounding like Moon River. Harry Saltzman was even more dismissive, apparently branding it the worst he'd ever heard, but agreeing to using it simply because there was no more time to write something new. Which, I think, we shall be forever grateful.

Goldfinger's characters also defined the panoply of casting that would become the formula for the series. We can discuss the politics of the term 'Bond girl' all day long, but despite the iconic appearance of Ursula Andress in Dr. No and Daniela Bianchi's simpering role in From Russia With LoveGoldfinger established the notion that being Bond's love interest wasn't necessarily a long-term role.

I'm talking, of course, of Shirley Eaton - until Goldfinger, a pretty blonde British actress who'd appeared in Carry On and St. Trinians comedies - and who, thanks to her character Tilly Masterson getting too friendly with Bond, ends up painted gold (trying saying that without thinking of Goldmember...) from head to toe, nude and very dead. All within the first 20 minutes of the film.

Masterson's death in Goldfinger may have propelled Eaton instantly to pin-up status, but it was Honor Blackman who created, for me - and, let's not mess about - the sexiest Bond girl of all: Pussy Galore.

Ian Fleming's novel established her as one of the greatest double entendres in literature, but in the film, she also became one of the most brazen characters to appear in mainstream cinema. In the book she's the leader of an all-lesbian circus troupe; in the film, of course, she's the leader of an all-female flying circus. From Russia With Love had flirted with lesbianism with Lotte Lenya's shoe-stabbing Rosa Klebb, but Pussy Galore made things a lot clearer - "You can turn off the charm, I'm quite immune" she tells Bond. This after one of the greatest exchanges in any Bond film: "Who are you?" says the spy. "Pussy Galore" she replies. "I must be dreaming...." comes the retort.

This isn't, however, the most famous line in Goldfinger. That comes courtesy of Gert Frobe, the portly German who played the film's antagonist, Auric Goldfinger. Shortly before he attempts to laser-cut Bond from the nuts up he is asked by 007: "Do you expect me talk?", responding jovially with "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to DIE!". The best ever Bond line? Yup.

Auric Goldfinger cast the mould for future Bond villains, be it the various incarnations of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the deranged Hugo Drax in Moonraker, the web-handed Kark Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, Christopher Walken's unhinged Max Zorin in A View To A Kill and Yaphet Kotto's brilliant Dr. Kananga in Live And Let Die. However, none of these baddies would be anywhere near as sinister without their henchpersons, and for that we must thank Goldfinger's Oddjob.

Played by Hawaian wrestler Harold Sakata, the mute chauffeur-come-assassin with the guillotine blade in his top hat was a truly frightening creation, the pure evocation of fear and a genuine threat to Bond's health and wellbeing. Oddjob set the benchmark for terror, to be later approached by Tee-Hee and Baron Samedi, by the darkly camp Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, by Grace Jones as Mayday and, of course, the-now late Richard Kiel as Jaws - seemingly unstoppable, even to our hero.

Last, but not least, we must remove a hat and thrust it upwards for Goldfinger's part in giving us the ultimate Bond gadget: the "modified" Aston Martin DB5. A quintessentially British car with Italian design (Superleggera), the Aston, with its forward-facing machine guns, bullet-proof shield, oil slick spray, and tire-shredding wheel hubs, was a preposterous piece of creative design by John Stears, combined with equally smart marketing by the manufacturer. Of course none of the gags, save the revolving number plate (have that, speed cameras!) would have worked in reality, least of all the passenger-side ejector seat that would have scorched Bond. But that's not the point.

Like Tilly Masterson, the DB5 doesn't last very long in Goldfinger, but it enjoys enough screen time to make it the most must-have toy of the last half century. Just about everyone of my age - above and below - has owned Corgi's die-cast replica at some point in their lives, and managed to lose the blue-suited miniature Goldfinger henchman that it sprung out of the roof. No wonder, then, that Sam Mendes resurrected the DB5 - registration plate BMT 216A - for Skyfall, celebrating the franchise's 50th with a true hairs-on-the-neck-raising moment that pleased an entire generation of Bond fans.

Compared with all the CGI nonsense filling up your local multiplex, Goldfinger might look old. But for an action film to remain as vibrant, as engaging, as exciting and as damned-good fun for 50 years as Goldfinger has says something about how if, sometimes, you throw everything including the kitchen sink into a movie, you are left with something that is not only utterly memorable, but can set the benchmark very high for many years to come.