[dropcap size=small]H[/dropcap]e’s not allowed to play violent videogames,” my mother told them, my high school aged babysitters, as she left for work. The sound of an electro-revamping of John Barry’s James Bond theme managed to drown out the sound of the engine of my mother’s car before it had completely faded, or even left the driveway. And so, at the ripe age of seven, I became enamored of the James Bond I came to learn through GoldenEye 007 for Nintendo 64. And I’d make my way through the other Bond video games and, at some point later that year, I’d watch my first James Bond movie. And I would gobble up the franchise (up to Die Another Day, at least), and nothing, not even the original Ian Fleming novels would be able to quench my thirst for the man with the license to kill. (Fun fact: My useless talent is that I can name all the Bond films in backwards chronological order in under 30 seconds.) Before long, I would introduce myself to car salesman as “the biggest James Bond fan in the tri-state area), despite living in Connecticut. And then something changed…
I was, like every other James Bond purist, up in arms about the casting of a blonde and blue-eyed actor to play James Bond. But seeing Daniel Craig walk out of the sea in those powder blue shirts made me realize two things: 1) I was totally into dudes and 2) the rest of the James Bond franchise was kind of terrible. (Just kidding with that first part; that wouldn’t happen to me for another ten years.) And I blame Goldfinger.
The reason why a lot of people like Goldfinger is the same reason why I dislike the Bond franchise in general: Goldfinger presented the formula to which the series was married to for forty-odd years, something that I realized during Casino Royale was tired, and boring, and, in a post 9/11 world, paradoxically “necessary” but unwanted. That formula is easy to understand: Bond has gadgets, Bond gets the girl, Bond faces off a villain, all ends well. While the Bond franchise is often really excellent when examining the films for various reflections of society’s standards on race, sex, gender, and popular culture, it nevertheless fails to excuse, for me, how drab actually watching the films is.
I’m a James Bond fan who doesn’t like most of the James Bond films.
1964 might be the true birth of “James Bonds as we know him”, but it was also the birth of a cartoon character devoid of depth or nuance (save for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). He becomes no different than any other superhero, scrapping any compelling elements of his character, especially the weaknesses that Ian Fleming illustrated in the novels.
Goldfinger’s introduction of gadgets (I don’t count the attaché case in From Russia with Love exactly) is cute and sweet, its pervasive sexism is everything but (but then again, kind of comes with the territory), but its flat villains is probably what makes it the most annoying for me. Oddjob (Harold Sakata) is memorable for his hat, and Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) for his broken accent and large laser contraption, but I can’t for the life of me remember what the actual devious plot of his is. And I’ve seen the film a couple dozen times. By introducing such a cartoonish villain, it would set a pattern where the only thing that mattered for that villain is how outrageous they could be, not necessarily how interesting they were. Thus, the stakes of Goldfinger, and many of the following films, seem to be nonexistent or completely undermined by “look how kooky this bad guy is” (except GoldenEye). Were there a balance between those two elements, I’d be fine with that (this is, after all, a thing of personal taste). But there’s not.
Although misogyny seems to just be a de facto part of the James Bond universe (books, games, films), Goldfinger absolutely hits a low that, thankfully, the series would never return to: the rape of Pussy Galore. And though the series would never reach a point as terrible as that, it did continually return to the Bond Girl Who Appears to Have Agency and Then Doesn’t archetype. There’s Wei-Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies, Jinx in Die Another Day, Dr. Holly Goodhead in Moonraker, etc. There’s the illusion that someone as seemingly powerful and impressive as Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) has agency, but her utilization of that power is only ever in service of another man in the film (Goldfinger and Bond, primarily). It’s an unfair dynamic that has yet to be rectified, where even Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) only barely touches that ideal.
While Sean Connery’s performances in Dr. No and From Russia with Love never really sought realism in the first place, there was, at least, some semblance of a grounding that the character had. In a way, those first two entries established Bond as a character not unlike Humphrey Bogart: his hyper-masculinity was almost an examination of that very ideal. It’s not as carefully crafted as Bogart, but it was a starting point. Observing all of his actions, from his heavy drinking to his womanizing, his methodical tendencies (especially in his hotel room in Dr. No) makes on considering the first two bond films like the beginning of a character study. Goldfinger essentially abandons those ideas in favor of an easier blank slate, action archetype. (Your Beatles joke is not funny.)
I walked out of Casino Royale, with its grittier story, its dirtier aesthetic, its more dangerous and urgent thematic content, and its human Bond, realizing that this was all I wanted from the Bond series. Perhaps I might be missing the entire point of the Bond series and the franchise that exists as it is, but the heart wants what it wants. The thing I always say is that the best James Bond films aren’t James Bond films: they’re just great films. Dr. No, From Russia with Love, GoldenEye, Casino Royale, and Skyfall all exist outside of the established blueprint of what “James Bond is supposed to be”. They take James Bond seriously not as a character, but as a human being. The flaws aren’t just things to be cast aside, but to be considered in a larger sense. The villainy isn’t just some crackpot plan to rule the world, but relevant reflections of sociopolitical issues, elevated by cinematic suspense. Without the distractions of being married to the Bond Maxim, these films transcend the franchise.
Goldfinger, though, is the reason why the subsequent films had to deviate in the first place. I appreciate it on a level of understanding what the Bond series is, but I resent it for making it what the series became. Though much of it is memorable, it’s more because of setting up and adhering to a four decade long custom than it is for being a truly outstanding film. Sure, Shirley Bassey’s theme is iconic, the killer hat is cool, but I never want to hear the line “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die” ever again in my life.