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Who’s afraid of James Bond?

All in all, we are not really so fond of James Bond. We’ve watched all three films of the 007 Series, we’ve read one of Ian Fleming’s novels (out of professional curiosity: we wanted to study the ways and means of transposing it from page to screen), we’ve pondered on our reactions as amused spectators and reflected on those of worried or appalled critics, and we’ve come to the conclusion that James Bond is somewhat unpleasant.

To be clear: ours is a psychological reaction, removed from any moralism. As we watched Goldfinger, we caught ourselves silently rooting for Auric Goldfinger, the villain in the story. Of course, we knew James Bond would win and his sinister rival be defeated: the film’s logic, the future of producers Saltzman and Broccoli and the survival of the United States relied on it, but, in our heart of hearts, we were sorry. […] Why, then?, we wondered. The answer is simple: because Goldfinger is smart. Better yet: he’s a genius. Let’s be honest about it: Auric Goldfinger is, at least in Ian Fleming’s train-journey inspired, snobbish literature, an Evil Genius. And he has the supreme quality of a genius: creative imagination, which is better and different from imagination itself. Look at what he says in the novel, on page 127: “This is my last feat, Mr Bond, and also my most important… Mankind has climbed Everest and explored the depths of the ocean. It has launched rockets into space and split the atom. It has invented, imagined, created across all sectors of human activity and it has always triumphed; it has performed miracles. I say all sectors, but one has been left behind, Mr Bond. And that is, the human activity commonly known as crime. So-called great crime committed by individuals… I’m obviously not referring to their stupid wars, the absurd practice of destroying one another… So-called great crimes, I mean, are but miserable petty crime: insignificant bank robberies, meaningless fraud, counterfeiting a few notes. Yet, a few hundred miles from here, an opportunity exists for the worst crime in history. The scene is set, a huge prize awaits the winner, only the actors are missing. Finally, the director is here, Mr Bond… and he has already chosen his orchestra. The screenplay is being read this afternoon to the main cast members, then rehearsals will begin, and one week later the curtain will go up for the only scheduled performance. Applause will break out for the biggest raid of all time. For centuries, Mr Bond, the echo of that applause will propagate throughout the world”. It may sound a little overemphasized, but it’s an effective example of oratorical prose: Goldfinger is aware of his own genius. And who’s upsetting his cunning plan? An ordinary James Bond, who isn’t the smartest apple in the orchard […]. In cinema, Bernard Bergonzi’s stern condemnation in a 1958 New Statesman issue still resonates: “The fact that Ian Fleming’s books are published by a highly reputable publisher and are regularly reviewed – and widely acclaimed – in our proud intellectual weeklies, is a testament to the current state of our culture, more so than a whole book of random critiques”.

Therefore, is it our duty to be concerned about James Bond’s success, to be afraid of 007’s mysticism, to denounce the exaltation of violence, poisonous eroticism, shabby sadism and disguised racism to which we, corrupt spectators of the western world, are exposed?

This phenomenon was not a flare-up. Dr. No (007-Licence to Kill, 1962) only became a blockbuster in the uk where Ian Fleming’s novels already had an average circulation of a million copies; in Italy it was almost shunned. From Russia with Love (1963) doubled its uk success, it was a hit on the North-American market. However, in Italy it only reached 22nd position at the end of the 1963-64 season in terms of box office. Goldfinger (1964) catapulted Bond to superstardom. London exceeded the previous year’s box office sales. In the 29 theatres where it was distributed in the us, Goldfinger raked in over a million dollars in its first week, overtaking My Fair Lady to lead at the box office, where it stayed for three months.

[…] In Milan and in Rome, the scene at cinema entrances where Goldfinger was released was as much “on fire” as in the days when La dolce vita was all the rage: tumultuous queues, shattered window panes under the weight of the crowd, dead tired box-office staff, spectators in their fur coats fainting, baffled police officers being trampled over, calls clogging Police Head Quarter lines.

What’s the criticism? Let’s begin with an obvious observation. James Bond’s feats are all built around the same formula: as an envoy of “M” – in a British film critic’s words, “a Secret Services Prospero” – Bond single-handedly takes on a luxuriously furnished enchanted fortress filled with the most advanced, creative hi-tech gadgets. The bad guy (Dr. No, Mr Big, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Goldfinger) captures him; there is a lot of hustle, everything blows up, the baddie dies and James Bond is saved by the bell, emerging unscathed with a lady on his arm. It isn’t a magic formula, but it works. […]

The opinion on Goldfinger is almost unanimous. Its flashiest, action-packed ten minutes appear at the start, even before the opening credits, and have nothing to do with the story: following a tnt blast James Bond removes his wetsuit, revealing a crisp dinner jacket; he straightens his lapels and walks into a nightclub. Bond puts his arms around a woman and sees a figure attacking him from behind his back reflected in her eyes (Hitchcockian…). He violently pushes the attacker into a water-filled bath, and, finding nothing else handy, throws a curved lamp at him.

[…] Herein lies the true explosiveness of Goldfinger, and one of the main reasons for its success: the amazing Aston Martin DB5 coupe (pricetag: 17 million lire!) equipped with a radar and gps dashboard, revolving number plates, bulletproof windscreens and rear shield, machine-gun headlights like on fighter planes, ejector seat, oil slick, smoke screen and wheel-destroying spikes (reminiscent of Ben-Hur’s scythed chariots…), the old Rolls-Royce with removable solid gold bodywork, the absurd circular saw blades which cut through metal like butter, a dart gun, a radio transmitter in the heel of his shoe, an audio-guided game of gin rummy… Rarely have we seen a film such as Goldfinger, where the director’s input is subordinate to the production strategy and, in particular, to special effects technicians. The best talent in the movie is, from this point of view, cinematographer Ken Adam (who worked with Stanley Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove) […].

The typical James Bond movie recipe is easy to assess: aside from sex and violence as the two main ingredients (the former displayed along the lines of Playboy-like soft eroticism with a few cautious, yet spectacular, aberrations here and there; the latter bearing a masochistic trait, particularly noticeable in Goldfinger) there is an underlying exotic, luxury-tourism element (famous beaches, big hotels, aeroplane travel, etc.), international high-life snobbery (Bond’s elegant taste is less sophisticated and evident on camera than in literature), and technological features bordering on science fiction. However, a clear willingness to demystify is the secret common thread in the three movies, and a sign of intelligence.

All in all, the authors target adventure, thrill-seeking spirit, entertainment and sensationalism, with just a pinch of provocativeness (and self-deprecating humour at times), which sets the films apart from the books: they are way over the top, but openly so, somehow pleading for spectator approval.

The applause almost all of us have heard at one time or another at a Goldfinger screening speaks for itself. These spectators know for sure what they’re in for, and do not blindly subject themselves, through blissful and stolid ignorance, to the cunning stratagems of hidden persuaders. […]

There has been much talk of sado-masochism surrounding Goldfinger. Over the course of the three films there is a considerable evolution in James Bond’s behaviour, from active to passive: the baddie brandishing a weapon is Auric Goldfinger. But let’s not exaggerate.

There has been much talk of sado-masochism surrounding Goldfinger. Over the course of the three films there is a considerable evolution in James Bond’s behaviour, from active to passive: the baddie brandishing a weapon is Auric Goldfinger. But let’s not exaggerate. As clever British critic Penelope Houston wrote, in Goldfinger Bond represents Tom from Tom and Jerry: he boasts the same scary elasticity and the same ability to endure punishment. Isn’t the audience actually aware of this, and doesn’t it simply play along, drawn to the film’s purely entertaining nature, an adventure-seeking tale per se, with no ideological implications? […]

Finally, others compare Bond to strip cartoon heroes – Mandrake, Flash Gordon, Superman – modern-day demigods, “soulless, carefree, purpose-driven mythological heroes whose mission keeps them detached from their conscience”. […] There is a certain paternalistic streak here – fathers often worry excessively about the novelties their children are into. In any case, it isn’t the children who tend to take James Bond too seriously.

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