A review from 1964
One man’s meat being another man’s poison, who would ever dare to venture on a working definition of that overworked word entertainment?
It is the thing which nine out of 10 of us seek whenever we set foot inside a cinema or theatre; and it is usually the first question which comes to mind when people ask each other what they should see.
“Yes, I know,” they’ll say with slight impatience, “I know it’s frightfully significant and all that… but is it entertaining?” It isn’t everyone who wants to pay to have his conscience put on the rack.
Well, a film which arrived in London this week comes about as near a comprehensive definition as any filmgoer could wish to see. To begin with it holds the attention of the audience from brazen start to fantastic finish – well, not quite to the silly end, perhaps, but then we can’t have everything.
Every foot of it is made with the shrewdest sense of how to work on the spectator’s responses: the result is an extraordinarily lively relationship between the audience and the screen; and above all the film leaves us as it finds us; unmoved but not unamused, and feeling that the time has been agreeably spent in a satisfactorily light-hearted way.
As everyone must know by now if he cares for the cinema, the film is called, quite simply, Goldfinger; and for once the reviewer can lay his hand on his heart and recommend it to both cultists and non-cultists of James Bond as two hours of outrageously deliberate and wittily absurd… what’s the word? Entertainment.
Seldom in the history of the modern cinema can so many clichés have been pressed into such active service with so few yawns; and the reason is clear enough.
Every now and again the narrative insists on gently sending itself up, as if assuring us that the film is perfectly aware of its fundamental absurdity but anxious that we should share the joke on terms of mutual one-upmanship. It’s a sort of Brecht’s alienation effect. We are not supposed to get too absorbed.
It is important, however, that the players themselves should not betray by so much as a glint in the eye the farcical nature of their work. It is equally important that the dimension of self-mockery should not become obsessive, or the joke soon grows tiresome.
And it must be admitted that Goldfinger goes too far in this respect by laying its cards on the table from the start with an uproarious, pre-credits sequence of assiduously satirical Bondmanship: Bond emerging with unruffled elegance from an extremely violent, bullet-sprayed brawl; Bond perceiving in the eye of a naked woman the reflection of a would-be assailant; a fight which ends with the colourful electrocution of an intruder in a bath into which Bond casually hurls an electric fire.
As an epitome of 007’s way of life all this is disarming enough; it makes an admirably instructive preface. But does the spectator any longer require advice on how to view the slickest spy in all the world? Or doesn’t it matter how far the fooling goes, so long as it is plainly fooling?
Well, addicts of a drug need increased doses to obtain the same effect; and who shall say that Bond’s adventures are not an opiate of the people?
With Ian Fleming’s hero we can escape into a super-cynical world of tough and materialistic romanticism: not identifying ourselves too closely with this intrepid and resourceful fellow for whom women and planes and evil bigwigs lie patiently in wait; but fellow-travelling with Mittyish pleasure and thanking our stars that we are not required to meet sinister Koreans with lethal hats at whose flinging all the world had better duck.
Slickness is everything. Consider an early gambit. Goldfinger, a rotund, international glutton for gold, is winning at cards on Miami beach. His gorgeous secretary (Shirley Eaton of the golden ads) trains a telescope on his opponent’s hand from a hotel room; and what she sees she radios back to her employer, through his apparent deaf aid.
Bond having libidinously interrupted her vigil, she is later found dead, all painted in gold. Her skin, it seems, couldn’t breathe.
Kinky? Well, a theme song refers to the cold finger of Goldfinger, and the mood is nothing if not flip and frosty; you can scent the appeal for cultists.
After Bond has had dinner at the Bank of England so that he shall know what gold really is, he challenges the omnipotent Goldfinger at golf with a £5,000 gold bar at stake. It is here that we meet him of the frightful bowler-hat: Goldfinger’s impregnable handyman-caddie of menacing ubiquity, called Odd-Job. It proves a very immoral but funny game of golf. No need, of course, to say who wins.
The next move is to Switzerland where Bond is able to bring into action a motor car of which Scarface must have dreamed: choked with optional extras such as navigational radar, forward shooting machine guns, a smoke-screen device to muddle pursuers and a passenger-ejector seat for anyone who chances to outstay his welcome.
Naturally Bond finds reason for testing everything, including a lathe-like, expanding rear axle with which an unsuspecting overtaking car may be pierced (with acknowledgments to the chariot race in “Ben Hur”).
But things do not always go our hero’s way. As Goldfinger’s prisoner strapped on his back to a table he has a nasty experience: a death ray creeps towards him sawing, as it approaches, through a metal table.
Kids’ stuff, perhaps? The sort of thing you expect to find in cheaper science fiction? The film is quite aware of that and isn’t the least ashamed. Indeed, when it shifts to Goldfinger’s American stronghold the fantasy takes an even firmer grip; for it is proposed to pinch (or at any rate atomise) the whole of America’s gold reserves at Fort Knox. Goldfinger is an ambitious man. He also has the talent to go with it.
Among his possessions are a private army and air force (the latter attractively manned by women); and a quantity of most convenient nerve gas which puts them down at Fort Knox like ninepins; and when the great day comes…
But perhaps enough has been said to indicate the falling-off of form towards the end. The idea is almost too big for comic handling, except on a “Dr. Strangelove” level; and in the circumstances we can hardly expect that.
Characteristically there is a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of physical action. Bond and most of his fictional kindred have always been men of few words. But from what little is said it appears that Goldfinger wants to render the gold reserves radio-active (for 58 years; the precision is typical) so that his own gold will increase in value.
The economics seem impeccable. What isn’t so clear is why Goldfinger goes to the trouble of staging a full-scale invasion of Fort Knox to plant a bomb in the holy of holies when he might just as well have dropped it from a plane – or at least have discussed the possibility.
Still, ours not to reason why with“Goldfinger; ours but to gape and admire; which is very easy and enjoyable until the story’s iceberg of extravagance finally appears in its true proportions.
One again wishes that Sean Connery could be made to seem a shade more human as Bond; and Gert Frobe’s Goldfinger, though nicely in character, also acts like an automaton. Or is one merely being nostalgic about the performances of a vanished generation? Humphrey Bogart, say, as Bond, and Sidney Greenstreet as Goldfinger: wouldn’t that have been richer casting?
Still, if the players do not possess or are not allowed very much depth of personality, the cult itself, the ingredients of sex and violence, brilliantly fills the former gap. And unlike the old Chicago melodramas no one dares to moralise in the world of 007. Their standard of living is too high for that.