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EMPIRE ESSAY: Goldfinger Review

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The Bank of England has discovered that someone is stockpiling vast quantities of gold and suspects international bullion dealer Auric Goldfinger of being involved. The Bank requests that British agent James Bond be sent to investigate. Bond soon uncovers an audacious plan to commit "the crime of the century" and bring economic chaos to the West.

★★★★★

At the beginning of Goldfinger, James Bond emerges from black water sporting a seagull on his head, then proceeds to shed his wet suit to reveal a snazzy tuxedo replete with buttonhole. Larger than life, faintly ridiculous, completely cool, it is perhaps the quintessential James Bond movie moment to kickstart the quintessential James Bond movie. In short, Goldfinger is the Bond flick where 007 really hit his stride. From the broad strokes — exotic locale, vast Ken Adam sets, a large-scale finale — to the gracenotes (this was the first Bond film where Q grumpily talks 007 through his gadgets) it solidified the template yet was fresh enough not to feel formulaic. Moreover, no other 007 flick achieves such a perfect balance between glamour and action, sex and special effects, drama and comedy.

Bond number three, after Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With I Love (1963), Goldfinger takes a frankly ludicrous plot conceit — bulbous gold-hoarding maniac controls Fort Knox via a team of jet-flying totty and plans Operation Grand Slam, a scheme to irradiate the bullion and give him control of the world's gold reserves — yet never undermines its silliness to the point where the heroics become unengaging. Gadgets are to the fore but do not swamp the story. Indeed, it's a rare Bond film where 007 actually gets to do some spying and survive on his wits. Rather than pure Q dept gizmology, it is Bond's smattering of knowledge concerning Operation Grand Slam that stops Goldfinger melting his nuts.

Despite its robbery plotline, Goldfinger is less a heist movie and more a duel between superhero and supervillain. Auric Goldfinger — the surname came from an architect acquaintance of Ian Fleming's — is one of the few Bond adversaries to pose a proper, believable threat to Bond. As inhabited by Gert Frobe and voiced by Michael Collins, Goldfinger is an expert melding of the snide and the ruthless. In fact, so successful was Frobe that, working on early drafts for Diamonds Are Forever, screen scribe Richard Maibaum toyed with the idea of making the villain Auric Goldfinger's twin brother who has a passion for sparklers. The idea was dropped. Happily, Goldfinger has a henchman to match his prowess: mute manservant Oddjob (Harold Sakata, a wrestler known as Tosh Togo) who establishes his credentials early on by crushing a gold ball in his hand and decapitating a statue with his razor-brimmed hat. Later he gives Bond a thorough workout in a punishing last reel punch up.

Traversing a variety of looks, from the smoky exoticism of Mexico to the glitzy environs of Fort Knox, director Hamilton etches the action with fine detail — in the opening brawl, Bond sees his assailant approaching in the reflection of his lover's eye; the corpse-in-the-car-crusher murder — yet still pulls off the huge sweep. Pussy Galore's Flying Circus spraying nerve gas as John Barry's music goes into outlandish overdrive. Some of Goldfinger's greatest action licks went through a number of incarnations: Bond's near castration by laser beam was originally death by buzzsaw until Maibaum declared the spinning blade a hoary melodramatic cliche; the now iconic customised Aston Martin DB5 (a DBS in Fleming's novel) was originally billed as a Bentley. Graced with oil slick dispenser, machine guns, front wheel scythes (born from Maibaum's fascination with Ancient Greece) and, best of all, an ejector seat deployed in a blistering getaway, it is simply the sexiest motor in movie history, both on screen and as a Corgi plaything (hands up, who lost the little ejector seat man?). If nothing else, Goldfinger got in on the ground floor as far as product placement and merchandising are concerned, both of which are now action movie staples.

If the physical stuff is top-notch, Goldfinger also scores heavily in between the set-pieces both in its less frantic beats — witness the priceless encounter in which Bond out-cheats Goldfinger over 18 holes, or O07's discovery of Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) covered head to foot in gold paint — and in its characterisation. Sidelined in the book as a lesbian gangster, Pussy Galore is here upgraded to Goldfinger's personal pilot and is perhaps the closest Bond has come to meeting a female incarnation of himself. Smart as she is sassy, Honor Blackman's "Poosy" gives Goldfinger an edge not provided by any other Bond girl.

With Blackman offering a formidable screen presence that previous eye candy Ursula Andress and Daniela Bianchi never mustered, Connery is forced to raise his game, but looks more comfortable in the role than ever. He delivers the requisite peppering of one-liners with panache — "Shocking, positively shocking," he quips as he electrocutes an assailant in the bath — but never muddies Bond's identity as sexual predator, suave sophisticate or menacing murderer. For once, the bulk of the theme song's lyrics — "Enter his web of sin/but don't go in" — apply at least as much to 007 as they do to Goldfinger. A Midas touch indeed.

Larger than life, faintly ridiculous, completely cool, Goldfinger is the quintessential James Bond movie.