Tag Archives: Auric Goldfinger

Skyfall Countdown Day 21: Thunderball

Sean Connery suffering another hard day at the office.

My contrarian instincts tend to show when it comes to Thunderball, because for me, it has always been the bête noire of the “official” Sean Connery Bond films.  In terms of sheer box office power it was the most popular of the movies he ever made.  It’s also rumoured that it was Connery’s personal favourite of his Bond appearances.  But the long and tortured history it took to get to the screen resulted in what, on reflection, is an overlong, uneven and rather pedestrian entry, which is all the more disappointing given the production values and the presence of arguably the most jaw-droppingly stunning woman ever to star as James Bond’s leading lady.

Had history unfolded differently, Thunderball would have been the first James Bond movie, and it would have hit screens several years prior to Dr. No.  Ian Fleming had initially worked with producer Kevin McClory and playwright Jack Whittingham to develop a 007 screenplay – when nothing came it, Fleming went ahead and adapted the work into his novel Thunderball and was subsequently whacked with a plagiarism lawsuit from his aggrieved former partners – the stress of which certainly contributed to the author’s failing health.  Claiming rights to Thunderball, McClory was later prepared to go ahead and produce his own James Bond film in competition with the Broccoli-Saltzman series until all parties agreed upon a truce – McClory would produce Thunderball in collaboration with Broccoli and Saltzman, Connery would star, and in return, McClory would agree not to make another Bond movie for at least ten years.  That would subsequently not turn out to be that, with McClory fighting a losing battle for the rights to James Bond for the rest of his life (he passed away in 2006).  More on that when we get to Never Say Never Again in a few weeks.

Anyway, despite its turbulent pregnancy, the movie is serviceable, if deeply flawed for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.  Agents of SPECTRE, coordinated by the eyepatch-wearing Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), hijack a NATO bomber with two nuclear weapons aboard, hiding it in the Bahamas and demanding 100 million pounds in diamonds as a ransom.  James Bond happens to be recuperating at a health clinic where the operation is being coordinated and requests assignment to Nassau to locate the bombs before they can be deployed against the United States.  He’s aided in his search by Largo’s beautiful girlfriend Domino (Claudine Auger), the sister of the NATO pilot who was murdered during the theft of the bombs, and challenged by sizzling femme fatale Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), who rides a motorbike equipped with rocket launchers.  A large portion of the movie takes place underwater, with the climactic battle unfolding between legions of scuba divers having at each other with knives and spearguns beneath the waves.

Unfortunately, the screenplay, so key to the success of Goldfinger, is not equal to the visual spectacle this time around.  A fundamental narrative mistake mars the plot in that the audience is always ahead of Bond; this is not always a bad thing (eg. From Russia with Love) but here the experience is frustrating.  We have seen exactly where the bombs are hidden in the first act – in a sequence of exhausting detail – yet are subjected to repeated scenes of Bond wandering around looking for them, in some cases literally flying over water peering down with binoculars, exchanging bland exposition with Felix Leiter (Rik van Nutter).  The main antagonist, Largo, is a paper-thin bad guy with no motivation other than as a required mechanism to move the plot along – he is SPECTRE’s muscle for this operation, nothing more, and accordingly receives no character development, giving us little interest in watching him be brought down.  His social interactions with Bond are awkward and unmemorable, and have nowhere near the electricity of Bond’s encounters with Auric Goldfinger.

It’s perhaps unintentionally ironic that “largo” in musical terms means a very slow tempo, for this movie unfolds at such a lethargic pace (even with the looming threat of nuclear destruction) that there never seems to be any great urgency by anyone to do anything.  The underwater scenes were likely a revelation in 1965 but they drag the film down – one gets the sense that so much money was spent in staging and shooting them that the producers did not want to waste a single frame of footage, however, a few minutes removed strategically here and there could have tightened the pace.  Even John Barry’s usually brilliant scoring work gets repetitive as he’s forced to bolster these lengthy servings of underwater action.  The temptation to push fast forward is regrettable for any movie, and you can skip whole sections of Thunderball and still follow the story.

So what remains to recommend this water-logged James Bond tale?  Well, Claudine Auger, the first of many otherworldly French Bond girls, is a spectacular sight (even though her deeper continental accent was dubbed by a higher-pitched actress), garbed to keep the best of her natural assets on display as much as possible, and usually just out of the water.  Even if her acting is not always up to par, her beauty alone makes her a compelling screen presence.  Luciana Paluzzi has some fun also with the first substantial “sexy bad girl” role in a Bond movie but never pushes things into the arena of camp villainy (villainessy?), ensuring that her character maintains a sliver of menace.  (There’s a fun scene where she mocks the convention established by Goldfinger where Bond’s sexual prowess can seemingly turn any evil woman to the side of the angels.)  The Nassau locations would have been suitably exotic to a 1965 audience even if they seem a bit tourist-trappy to the jaded eyes of today, and the scene where a wounded Bond attempts to lose his pursuers through the chaos of the Junkanoo parade is well-staged.  But overall the movie is bloated, lacks focus and is too enamoured of the technical prowess of its underwater scenes to make for a viewing experience one is terribly eager to repeat.

Tomorrow:  Ian Fleming gets the heave-ho in You Only Live Twice.

Skyfall Countdown Day 22: Goldfinger

Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger, stunningly predicting the rise of the iPod Shuffle.

I was at a birthday party many, many moons ago when the kid’s parents stuck a tape in their VCR and unveiled Goldfinger.  It was the first James Bond movie I’d ever seen, and where the rest of the kids were more eager to play with newly acquired Transformers and G.I. Joes, I was glued to the screen as unforgettable images reeled across my retinas:  Sean Connery in his prime.  The silent henchman with the steel-brimmed bowler hat.  The amazing Aston Martin DB5.  The near-castration by laser beam.  “Operation Grand Slam.”  Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus.  And the girl covered in paint… gold paint.  A revelation to a kid whose usual cinematic fare up until that point had been parent-approved rereleases of old Disney movies.

I’m biased towards liking Goldfinger more simply because it was my first, and because it kicked off years of bonding – pun totally intended – with my dad as he brought home a new 007 adventure from the video store every Friday night for us to watch together, or made a point to rearrange his calendar so we could stay up late when they were shown on television.  But even as a now embittered, cynical adult (he jested), Goldfinger is still an amazing ride.  Connery owns the role here the way he never would again, as in later films he is increasingly, and visibly, bored with becoming something of a prop in ever more elaborate set pieces.  But here he is smooth and unflappable; long gone is the eager 30-year-old Scot in his first big break barking dialogue at a machine-gun clip.  He is the epitome of Bond, fusing his own irreplaceable appeal with Fleming’s words and Savile Row tailoring to become that mythic apex of 60’s masculinity – anachronistic putdowns of the Beatles aside.

Sir Sean is matched effectively by German actor Gert Frobe as the bullion-obsessed Auric Goldfinger (“Sounds like a French nail varnish”), the first of many Bond villains to be obsessed with a particular commodity.  Goldfinger is larger than life, but never unbelievable – indeed, in a modern context he doesn’t seem that far removed from the likes of the Koch brothers.  He and Bond share a grudging respect, and Goldfinger’s choice to keep him alive through the second half of the film stems much from Goldfinger’s desire to defeat him socially – a wish shared by many villains that follow, and the source of many (easily escapable?) elaborate death traps.  And one would be remiss to leave out the junior member of the film’s evil duo – Harold Sakata as the legendary Oddjob.  Oddjob never speaks, but Sakata manages to inject a sinister form of charm into the part as he maintains a fastidiously tidy appearance even while committing the most savage of murders.  Another highlight is Desmond Llewelyn, in the second of his appearances as Q, beginning to flesh out the part by turning the eager-to-please armorer from From Russia with Love into a curmudgeonly public servant beleaguered by Bond’s continual disdain towards his precious equipment.  The “Q scene” would become a staple of the films from here on out, with Llewelyn remaining in the role until his tragic death in a traffic accident following the release of The World is Not Enough.

Third film, so naturally, three different Bond girls!  Shirley Eaton is sexy in various states of undress (black bikini, men’s dress shirt and finally nothing but gold paint and a strategically placed pillow) as Jill Masterson, Tania Mallet is sweet but equally short-lived as her vengeful sister Tilly, and Honor Blackman as the infamously-named Pussy Galore (almost called Kitty Galore for fear of the censors) does a good job of giving 007 as good as she gets until she finally succumbs to him – and who wouldn’t, of course.  Fleming’s portrayal of Pussy Galore in the book was rooted in embarrassing old school machismo, referring to her as a capital-L lesbian throughout, but the movie jettisons any such clumsily executed questions of gender identity.  The focus is adventure, not what a crusty old English sod thought of women he couldn’t charm.

John Barry is in top form here, building on what he began in the previous movie.  The brass section cuts loose here in what comes off as spy meets boogie-woogie, particularly in the famous title song belted out at eleven by Shirley Bassey in her introduction to the world of Bond.  One standout in the score is the haunting, finger-curling marimba piece that plays as the laser draws ever closer to 007’s waist, ratcheting up the suspense to unbearable levels.  Ken Adam and his production design team also kick things up a notch, with his imaginative set for the interior of Fort Knox (they weren’t allowed inside for reasons of security and had to guess at what it looked like) providing a visually sumptuous setting for the movie’s final showdown.

Still, none of this workmanship would matter if the screenplay wasn’t there, and writers Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn provide the perfect blueprint on which to build.  Goldfinger is the Bond movie with all the best lines, bar none:  “Do you expect me to talk?  No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”  “Ejector seat, you’re joking.  I never joke about my work, 007.”  “Choose your next witticism carefully, it may be your last.”  And so on, with the focus of the dialogue less on exposition and more on playful banter, almost like a comedy of manners playing out against the backdrop of a threat to the economy of the entire world.  In a sign that adherence to the Fleming works was becoming less important as the series gained in popularity, precious few of these lines came from the book.  Indeed, Goldfinger was the last Bond movie produced while Ian Fleming was alive.  Stress and hard living finally took its toll on the author, who passed away in August 1964 just before the movie was released.  The script does correct an outright miscalculation by Fleming by changing Goldfinger’s plot from robbing Fort Knox (Bond points out it would take twelve days) to irradiating it with an atomic bomb borrowed from China, heightening the stakes and adding in that critical ticking clock – which Bond is able to stop with 007 seconds left.  Leaving Fleming behind would prove to be a controversial choice as the series wore on, with the producers finding time and again that the further they strayed, the less audiences were amused.  But more on that another day.

From start to finish, Goldfinger is a feast for the Bond fan, with every element firing on all cylinders.  It set a standard that the twenty films to follow would often struggle to meet, and some might argue never have.

Tomorrow:  Thunderball gets water-logged.