Written by Craig Arthur
In a 1936 review of Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent, Graham Greene complained that Hitchcock’s films “consist of a series of small ‘amusing’ melodramatic situations. . . . Very perfunctorily he builds up these tricky situations (paying no attention on the way to inconsistencies, loose ends, psychological absurdities) and then drops them: they mean nothing: they lead to nothing.”
North By Northwest
The same accusation has often been made against the Bond movies. And defending Hitchcock against such claims in his classic 1965 study, Hitchcock’s Films, Robin Wood condemns Goldfinger in comparison to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. Observing that North By Northwest “corresponds most nearly to the conventional estimate of [Hitchcock] as a polished light entertainer”, Wood wanted to show that “a light entertainment can have depth, subtlety, finesse, it can embody mature moral values; indeed, it seems to me that it must. If I fail to be entertained by Goldfinger, it is because there is nothing to engage or retain the attention; the result is a nonentity, consequently tedious. The essential triviality of the James Bond films, in fact, sets off perfectly, by contrast, the depth, the charm, the integrity of Hitchcock’s film. A film, whether light entertainment or not, is either a work of art or it is nothing. And the basic essential of a work of art is that it be thematically organic. Goldfinger is a collection of bits, carefully calculated with both eyes on the box office, put end to end with no deeper necessity for what happens next than mere plot; nothing except plot develops in the course of it, and, obviously, the essence of organic construction is development.”
There is no denying that North By Northwest‘s premise — a New York advertising executive, Roger Thornhill, is mistaken for George Kaplan, a secret agent who does not exist — is no mere light entertainment. It is a much deeper analysis of the construct of masculinity than it first appears. Deeper even than Robin Wood would suggest. The key to this movie is line Thornhill (Cary Grant) casually utters in the movie’s opening scene, when lying to a woman about to get into taxi ahead of him. “In the world of advertising, there is no such thing as a lie. There’s only ‘expedient exaggeration’.” This smug attitude comes back to haunt Thornhill when he is mistaken for the non-existent Kaplan and must eventually pretend to be him instead of protesting his innocence. Nowhere in either real life or the plotline of North By Northwest, does the Bond-like Kaplan exist, except as a fantasy figure in our imaginations. And yet Kaplan is an expedient exaggeration of Thornhill’s personality traits, of his Cary Grant image.
Thornhill’s ‘impersonation’ of Kaplan in North By Northwest‘s final act offers an insight into the appeal of James Bond. When audiences watch Bond movies, they know they are watching a fantasy. From the beginning, the movies themselves acknowledged this in the self-conscious artificiality of the Connery/Bond persona, the self-depreciating humour and the paradoxical treatment of a secret agent as a glamorous infallible hero more akin to a film star or jet set playboy than a secret agent. The ruse on the part of SPECTRE in From Russia With Love is that Russian cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova supposedly falls for Bond’s file photo in the same way that she might fall in love with a film star. And Bond later signs Romanova’s photo for Moneypenny in the same way that a star might autograph it for a fan. We are aware that Connery is playing this non-existent fantasy figure and yet somehow becoming him in the same way that Thornhill becomes Kaplan. When George Lazenby took over the role, he delivered his famous “this never happened to the other fella” quip. When Connery returned to the role in Diamonds Are Forever, not only was his absence alluded to (“You’ve been on holiday, I believe,” Sir Donald Munger remarks and M later tells him, “We do function in your absence, Commander.”) but Bond is regarded as something of a celebrity. “My god, you’ve just killed James Bond!” Tiffany Case (Jill St John) exclaims after finding Bond’s wallet on the body of the smuggler Peter Franks. And in a variation on the same joke in 1985’s A View to a Kill Roger Moore tells the San Francisco policeman, “Well, actually, the name is Bond, James Bond”, and the policeman replies, “And I’m Dick Tracy and you are still under arrest.”
We are watching a construct. The Bond movies remind us of this and deliver the fantasy according to the expected formula. Audiences know what to expect in terms of narrative and character iconography before they buy a ticket. Critic Alexander Walker referred to this as their ‘submerged complicity’ with the audience. “Most thrillers worked with the screen; Bond was the first film series at the time to work with an audience,” Walker explains. “In a way, it was a return to those Saturday afternoon serials. People who went to see the Bond films henceforth knew the game and anticipated playing it and even working at it as the filmmakers fed them the clues.”
But does this mean that Bond movies are indeed just a collection of bits, as Robin Wood suggests, carefully calculated with both eyes on the box office, put end to end?
According to the standard definition of the operation and function of classical realist narrative given by Wood in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, the revised 1989 version of his 1965 book, the fundamental principles include “symmetry (especially of the beginning and end — ‘the end answers the beginning’) and closure (the resolution of all the narrative threads and moral issues, the restoration of order . . .).”
At first glance, it often appears that the Bond movies do not entirely adhere to these both principles. Closure, yes; symmetry, no. Often the pre-title sequences appear to be superfluous action sequences with no relevance to the movie that follows the main titles. In terms of narrative, there is no structural justification for the presentation of Bond’s assignment in Mexico in the pre-title sequence of Goldfinger. The original Ian Fleming novel begins with Bond waiting in the final departure lounge at Miami International Airport on the way back to London from the assignment in Mexico. While drowning his sorrows in a double bourbon, brooding over the fact he had no choice but to kill a Mexican thug in self-defence after completing the assignment, he has a chance meeting with a character from his past, Junius Dupont from the baccarat high table in Casino Royale. This leads to Bond’s first meeting with Auric Goldfinger, after Dupont engages him to find out how Goldfinger is cheating him at canasta each day at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel.
Virtually every structural justification for Ian Fleming’s inclusion of the references to the Mexican assignment in the novel has vanished in Goldfinger‘s transition to the cinema screen. There is no longer a scene where Bond is brooding over his last assignment at Miami airport. The pre-title sequence in Mexico has no connection to the events in Miami, except that it depicts an episode that took place immediately prior to his departure for Miami. Mr Ramirez’s use of “heroin-flavoured bananas to finance revolutions”, as Bond puts it, lacks any plot connection to Goldfinger’s smuggling operation or his plan to irradiate the gold reserves inside Fort Knox. And there was no necessity to ape Ian Fleming’s device of beginning the narrative before the story’s real beginning; the sequence offers no structural device to pull off Fleming’s sleight-of-hand, presenting a dull canasta game in an exciting manner. Nor is there a sense of the winds of circumstance blowing Bond off course after his Mexican assignment, into a chance meeting with an old acquaintance and his first encounter with Auric Goldfinger. The film-makers could simply have begun the movie with Bond’s meeting with Felix Leiter at the Hotel Fontainebleau and used the first encounter with Goldfinger — when Bond interrupts his cheating at canasta — as the pre-title sequence, ending with the ‘hook’ of Bond finding Jill Masterson dead, covered from head to toe in gold paint.
And yet Goldfinger‘s pre-title sequence does provide the movie with symmetry. It is simply a matter of knowing where to look.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
Like a Bond movie, Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes begins with a sequence unrelated to the main plot, apart from the fact that both it and the main plot explore contrasting examples of Sherlock Holmes’s involvement with the opposite sex that show a different side to his character to that depicted in the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The movie opens with a comic episode where Holmes (Robert Stephens) fends off the sexual advances of a Russian ballerina, unrelated to the main story about how he falls for a German spy, Gabrielle Valladon (Genevieve Page), who dupes him into helping her discover a secret British submarine being developed at Loch Ness. Although there is no link to the Russian ballerina, Holmes draws a parallel between her performance of Swan Lake and the mysterious events at Loch Ness: “We have come across this situation before . . . at the ballet. There’s a lake and there’s a castle and there’s a swan that isn’t really a swan. Or in this case a monster that is not really a monster.”
In Goldfinger, also, we have seen the events of the climax at Fort Knox before. In the pre-title sequence Bond places a bomb in a guarded vault, strips off his waterproof suit to reveal his dinner jacket, a woman switches allegiances to betray him and he kills an adversary by electrocuting him in the bathtub. And in the climax of the movie, Goldfinger plants an atomic bomb inside the gold vault at Fort Knox, strips off his outer garments to reveal a military uniform, is betrayed by Pussy Galore who warned the CIA about the dawn raid on Fort Knox, and Bond electrocutes Odd Job.
Commenting on his use of recurring visual motifs in the Three Colour Trilogy, in the DVD extras for Three Colours: Red, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski explains that, “In Red particularly, we wanted the viewer to think backwards, to make associations with things he had already seen without noticing. . . we tried to build up these signs, particularly in Red, so the viewer would realise that what he sees here he has already seen and would register that in some part of his subconscious. Many of these signs will not get through to him, but we let them build up so that at least some do, so that he understands the principle.” This same technique applies to movies as diverse as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Goldfinger.
In 2001, the phallic, white Discovery One spaceship bound for Jupiter is a visual echo of the bone hefted into the air by the primordial ape-man in the movies lengthy prologue from the dawn of man. As with the earlier visual association via the famous match cut from the bone to a satellite in orbit, the viewer thinks back to the ape wielding the bone and on a subconscious level links the humans who built the Discovery One and the HAL 9000 computer to primordial apes. We are hence aware of the folly of man, when the ultra-rational HAL deems the Jupiter Mission “too important” for the Discovery crew to potentially jeopardise when they begin to question ‘his; reliability and secretly plot to disconnect ‘him’ should the AE-35 unit not fail as he predicted. The ensuing conflict between Dave and HAL, when HAL severs Frank’s oxygen hose during his space-walk and then deactivates the life support system of the astronauts in cryogenic hibernation seems inevitable and inexorable as a result. And in Goldfinger the subconscious link for the audience between the bomb Bond places in Ramirez drug laboratory and the atomic bomb in Fort Knox helps build the tension. The Bond movie formula dictates that the denouement must be an anticlimax. Goldfinger’s plan will not reach fruition. He will not succeed in killing Bond and detonating the bomb inside the gold vault. However, just as in Three Colours: Red, the viewer will think backwards to the pre-title sequence without noticing and on a subconscious level they will register that they have already seen a bomb placed in a vault explode, which heightens the suspense despite the inevitable denouement.
Strictly speaking this tradition began with the pre-title sequence in From Russia With Love, with Grant stalking and strangling “James Bond”. In the climax aboard the Orient Express, the viewer thinks backward to the pre-title sequence when Grant kills “Bond”; the end answers the beginning. But, following on from From Russia With Love, the Goldfinger pre-title sequence became the blueprint for all subsequent Bond films. As Barbara Broccoli has pointed out, “No Bond film would be complete without a pre-credit sequence. We always look back at the one from Goldfinger as being perfect, and as being the ultimate one to emulate.” All the pre-title sequences provide symmetry with what will take place in the climax of the movie and generally they deliver this symmetry by depicting the end of Bond’s previous assignment in such a way that the events parallel the main plot.
The closer any Bond movie is to a literal remake of Goldfinger, the greater the similarity to Goldfinger‘s pre-credit sequence. By a literal remake, I don’t mean A View to a Kill‘s use of the Goldfinger plot where Max Zorin is attempting to control the world’s silicon chip industry by wiping out Silicon Valley in the same way that Auric Goldfinger sought to dominate the gold market by irradiating the bullion reserves in Fort Knox; I would consider that a ‘loose’ remake. By literal remake, I mean in the sense that The Spy Who Loved Me is a literal remake of You Only Live Twice, where the narrative structure of one movie can be mapped against the other as a series of co-ordinates, plot device to plot device, (as opposed to Tomorrow Never Dies which is, again, another loose remake of both these movies). Octopussy is a literal remake of Goldfinger. To compete with, Never Say Never Again, a literal remake of Thunderball in 1983, EON fell back on remaking Goldfinger. The two stories are identical. A smuggler (Goldfinger/Kamal Khan) with a vintage Rolls Royce for transportation and a solidly built Asiatic henchman (Odd Job/Gobinda), with the help of an exotically named independent woman (Pussy Galore/Octopussy) and her all female circus (Pussy Galore’s ‘flying circus’/Octopussy’s actual circus troop), conceives a plot with a rogue general from a Communist superpower (Mr Ling/General Orlov) to explode a nuclear bomb in a strategic target in the West (Fort Knox/a US Air Force Base in West Germany). The plot is thwarted when Pussy Galore/Octopussy changes sides and the final showdown with Goldfinger/Khan occurs aboard a plane. During the course of the story, Bond taunts both villains by producing either the gold ingot or the Fabergé egg during a game of golf/backgammon in which the villain is cheating. Both games end with Bond turning the tables and winning and the henchman (Oddjob/Gobinda) crushing the gold ball/loaded dice that decided the match with their bare hands. Bond tracks the villain’s movements with the add of a homing device supplied by Q branch and once at the heart of the villain’s smuggling empire, partly overhears a conversation between the villain and the representative of the foreign super-power, hinting at their big scheme. The deck is shuffled slightly in places. In both movies there is a subordinate Bond girl (Jill Masterson/Madga) in the villain’s employ. In both movies Bond sleeps with her and then is knocked unconscious by the villain’s henchman. But in Octopussy Madga remains loyal to Khan until much later in the plot and she is not killed. When Bond is knocked unconscious, he is captured so when he overhears the conversation between Khan and General Orlov, he has already been captured and escaped from the villain’s clutches, whereas in Goldfinger he has yet to be captured and does not regain his liberty. So, not surprisingly, the pre-title sequence of Octopussy is also very close to that of Goldfinger. In an assignment in Latin America, with no connection to the main plot of the movie, apart from the fact it mirrors the plot to explode a bomb in an air force base, Bond must blow up a hanger on a Cuban air force base. He is caught attempting to plant his bomb but after some aerial acrobatics in a miniature jet plane chased by a heat-seeking missile, he succeeds in blowing up the air force hanger in a spectacular fashion. This plants the idea in audiences’ subconscious minds that the villain’s plot to blow up the West German air base could succeed. The death of Colonel Toro does not mirror the death of either Khan or Gobinda in the same way that the electrocution of the Mexican mirrors the electrocution of Oddjob, but the Octopussy pre-title sequence does introduce the motif of the double. Bond attempts to infiltrate the air base by disguising himself as Colonel Toro, knife-throwing twins Mischka and Grischka are important minor villains, Khan and Orlov switch the boxcar containing the circus cannon on the Octopussy’s Circus train for an identical boxcar containing the nuclear bomb instead of the Russian jewellery, and Bond (disguised as a clown) is able to give the security men at the air base the slip inside the circus big top when they apprehend a clown dressed in an identical outfit.
Other Bond movies, even if they don’t copy the Goldfinger plot formula, still incorporate the formula of the Goldfinger pre-title sequence. For instance, the plot of For Your Eyes Only — which more closely parallels with From Russia With Love — involves both Bond’s efforts to recover the missing ATAC submarine communicator (a Hitchcockian MacGuffin like the Lektor decoder in From Russia With Love) before it falls into the wrong hands and Melina Havelock’s determination to avenge the death of her parents. In the pre-title sequence, which again has no overt connection to Bond’s mission or the main plot of the movie, we again see a parallel version of the main plot. Blofeld takes over the Universal Exports helicopter which collects Bond when he is visiting his wife’s grave by remote control, just as the ATAC would allow the Soviets to gain control of Britain’s nuclear arsenal and subsequently, after Bond has regained control of the helicopter after some daring mountaineering — a precursor to the actual mountaineering when Bond scales the rock cliff to reach the abandoned monastery where Kristatos waits to deliver the ATAC to the Russians — Bond gets his revenge on Blofeld for Tracy’s death, 12 years earlier, just as Melina intends to get her revenge on Kristatos.
The pre-title sequences do not always show us a mirror image of the movie’s main plot. Sometimes they simply point the way ahead to the main showdown between Bond and the villain. The pre-title sequence of Thunderball, for example, does not reflect the SPECTRE hijacking of two atomic bombs. Instead, in the same way that the electrocution of the Mexican in the bathtub in Goldfinger parallels the outcome of the fight with Oddjob inside Fort Knox, the highly kinetic chateau fight parallels the kinetic fight aboard the Disco Volante in the film’s climax (furniture is thrown and shelves topple as if the static chateau interior is a tilting deck; the carpet is pulled from under Boitier’s feet and the camera is tilted to simulate the loss of equilibrium). Also, Bond’s strategy of watching Jacques Boitier’s ‘widow’ at Boitier’s funeral and then punching her at the chateau, is mirrored in his efforts to track NATO pilot Derval’s sister, Domino, in Nassau after seeing Derval dead at Shrublands before eventually ‘socking her’ one with the revelation that Largo had him killed. So once again the viewer has already seen these events transpire in the pre-title sequence and registered it on a subconscious level. In this particular instance, it is important that the unmasking of Boitier’s widow in the Thunderball pre-title sequence parallels Bond’s efforts to get to Largo via Domino. The symmetry between the two creates a balance and it does not seem like an enormous plot digression when so much of the action in Nassau focuses on Domino, while the stolen atomic bombs recede into the background.
Since A View to a Kill, the producers of the Bond movies have made a determined effort to link the events depicted in the pre-title sequences directly to the main plot. Really this began with The Spy Who Loved Me, where Bond kills Anya Amasova’s lover, Sergei Borzov, during the ski chase, but in Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy they reverted to Goldfinger‘s depiction of an unrelated previous assignment immediately prior to the movie’s main plot. These pre-title sequences in The Spy Who Loved Me, A View to a Kill, and the subsequent Bond movies do not foreshadow the climax of the movie as deeply as the pre-title sequences of Goldfinger or Thunderball, but they do introduce and emphasise a key element of the main plot that will be pivotal in the climax of the movie, in much the same way that Kubrick introduces the monolith during the opening ‘Dawn of Man’ segment of 2001. In The Spy Who Loved Me, it is the close-up of slain Borzov’s face. In A View to A Kill it is the microchip that Bond recovers from the body of 003 in Siberia, linking to the importance of microchips in the main plot; in The Living Daylights, the note reading, “smert shpionam” that the killer attaches to 004’s climbing rope, introducing Koskov’s attempt to play MI6 and KGB against one another against one another; in Tomorrow Never Dies, the GPS encoder that Carver will later use to send China and Britain to the brink of war. In a way, these pre-title sequences were a return to the formula used in You Only Live Twice and the two subsequent Bond movies directed by Lewis Gilbert where the immediate glimpse of the threat — the SPECTRE rocket in You Only Live Twice, the capture of the British nuclear submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me and the space shuttle in Moonraker — prefigures the climax of the movie rather than any direct correspondence between the climax and the ‘assassination’ of Bond, the ski chase or the skydiving in these opening sequences. However, some other element from the pre-title sequence is usually still mirrored in the climax of the movie, as well. The Icelandic glaciers doubling for the Siberian setting in A View to a Kill‘s pre-title sequences are a visual reminder of the kind of extreme geological forces Zorin seeks to harness to destroy Silicon Valley in an earthquake. Even the much maligned use of the Beach Boys’ ‘Californian Girls’ in the score prefigures the Californian setting and the exploding flare inside the cockpit of the helicopter mirrors the later explosion when the dropped dynamite explodes inside the airship after Bond cuts the mooring, atop the Golden Gate Bridge (both scenes an allusion to the grenade exploding in the helicopter cockpit in From Russia With Love). The Living Daylights begins with Bond and the two other 00 agents skydiving from an RAF Hercules aircraft and the climactic fight between Bond and Necros aboard a similar Hercules in midair, with a bomb hidden in one of the sacks of raw opium ticking down (similarly during the pre-title sequence Bond grapples with 004’s killer inside a plummeting Land Rover in midair with the boxes of dynamite in the back about to explode). GoldenEye begins with 006 and 007 planting limpet explosives on chemical weapons tanks in a 1980s Soviet base and when Bond confronts Trevelyan in his Cuban lair nine years later, he places identical explosive devices on the nitrogen cooling tanks for the computer mainframe. In the Tomorrow Never Dies pre-title sequence the British Navy strike the terrorist arms bazaar with a surface to air missile, oblivious to the fact that they risk setting off two nuclear torpedoes; in the climax of the movie Carver hopes to trigger World War Three by launching an identical British surface-to-air missile into the centre of Beijing. In the pre-title sequence of Casino Royale (2006), Bond is sent to kill the traitor Dryden and his contact in order to gain his licence to kill. He confronts Dryden in his Universal Exports office in Prague’s Danube House and in the climax of the movie he will confront another traitor, Vesper, in a derelict Venetian building. Also, the water overflowing from the broken fixtures in the cricket pavilion bathroom in the flashbacks to the struggle with Dryden’s contact in the pre-title sequence prefigures the water flooding the sinking building in Venice. (During Casino Royale, the bathroom shower in which Vesper is in shock after helping Bond kill the African on the hotel stairs is a reminder of the messy struggle with Dryden’s contact too).
Even in Live And Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, where the pre-title sequences merely introduce the plot, they still prefigure the movie’s climax. The pre-title sequence of Live And Let Die ends where the climax of the movie will take place, at a voodoo ceremony in the Caribbean. As does the pre-title sequence of The Man With the Golden Gun, with a game of cat-and-mouse in the same funhouse on Scaramanga’s island, where Bond’s showdown with Scaramanga will take place. In Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, compositional elements in Leonardo Da Vinci’s fresco depicting the Last Supper supposedly reveal that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and she was his chosen successor. Similarly, the pre-title sequence of every Bond movie since From Russia With Love contains a code, a frame of reference that dictates what will happen in the movie’s climax, or where the climax will take place, creating a symmetry between the beginning and the end of the narrative even if there is no clear link in terms of plot. As a result, although the movies never use Ian Fleming’s technique of beginning the narrative in medias res and then backtracking, their pre-title sequences fulfil the same function as the cold opens of movies such as Pulp Fiction or Mission: Impossible III (or Casino Royale (1967)), where the brief pre-title teaser gives audiences a glimpse of events that take place at the climax and then backtrack to the beginning of the narrative following the main titles.
The Bond movies did not invent this device of an opening sequence which is unrelated to the main plot but which pre-figures the climax. Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), the first British film with sound, shows that the idea is as old as the ‘talkies’ themselves. Blackmail begins with Scotland Yard’s relentless pursuit and arrest of a wanted man in a London slum. There is no connection to the main plot, except that the pursuit and arrest delays Frank Webber (John Longden) from meeting his girlfriend, Alice (Anny Ondra) and she later gets back at him by going back to the artist’ studio: the man she ends up killing in self-defence when he tries to rape her. (So not surprisingly then that Graham Greene would complain about Hitchcock’s films consisting of a series of small ‘amusing’ melodramatic situations leading to nothing, just as later critics like Wood would complain about Bond movies) And yet in Blackmail‘s climax, the relentless pursuit from opening sequence is repeated, including the same close-up of the speeding wheel of the police van.
The climax of Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief also involves the repetition of a ruse from the movie’s opening. In the opening sequence, the French police chase after John Robie (Cary Grant) only to discover that his housekeeper was driving the car, while Robie escaped by hiding on the rooftop of his villa and then casually boarded a bus; at the masquerade ball where the real cat burglar is finally unmasked, Hughson (John Williams), the Lloyds insurance agent dons Robie’s costume to distract the police while Robie keeps a rooftop vigil, waiting for the ‘Cat’. But Blackmail is the Hitchcock film providing the key to fully understanding Bond movies.
In Blackmail, the audience watches the opening pursuit of the suspect with detachment. The entire sequence is silent and we do not know his crime or whether he is guilty or innocent. We simply watch the relentlessness of the pursuit through a working-class neighbourhood and the subsequent arrest and charging of the man, in a documentary like manner. In contrast, our sympathies to the hunted blackmailer Tracy (Donald Calthrop) in Blackmail‘s climax are complex and ambiguous. We do not want to see him give Alice away, but we also know that he is innocent of the crime for which he is being pursued. Given Webber’s efforts to frame Tracy, our attitude to the relentless police chase is far less detached. We respond toward the situation in the same way we respond toward tragedy, with a mixture of pity and fear. In contrast to the working-class tenements of the movie’s earlier pursuit, Hitchcock set the climactic chase in the British Museum. As Robin Wood points out, “the symmetry/opposition confers political connotations upon it: an oppressed and hostile proletariat ‘answered’ at the film’s close by the grandeur of a national institution with strong imperialist overtones.” Wood links this museum sequence to the climax atop Mount Rushmore later in Hitchcock’s career in North By Northwest. Citing the observations of another Hitchcock scholar, Andrew Britton, Wood explains that the stone presidential heads (“guardians of order,” he calls them) “impede” the escape of Thornhill and Eve (Eva Maria Saint): “they are not the solution to the hero’s problems but the final obstacle he must overcome.” Similarly in Blackmail, the colossal head of an Egyptian god dwarfs the figure of Tracy as he slides down a rope, fleeing from the police. “Its cold impassivity remotely echoes the mirror reflection of the police detectives in the opening segment,” Wood explains. It gives us a sense of the fugitive’s desperation we lacked in the opening sequence, an empathy with a man up against forces of godlike indifference.
Goldfinger has a similar structure. The characters are presented in the pre-title sequence in a very detached, one dimensional fashion. Why does the tarantella dancer betray Bond? What is her connection to Ramirez and the thug Bond eventually electrocutes in her bathtub? We don’t care. And Bond is unflappable. He moves effortlessly through this Mexican operation like Webber and the other police operation in the London slum, protecting wealthier nations against Ramirez’s threat to capitalist economies. Bond is as imperturbable as Roger Thornhill, the smug advertising man mistaken for the non-existent secret agent George Kaplan in North By Northwest. But by Goldfinger‘s Fort Knox climax we have seen Bond’s infallibility become a trap for him. Because Felix Leiter glimpses Bond being his usual imperturbable self at Auric Stud, after the ‘homer’ planted on Mr Solo goes dead, they presume that everything is normal (as Van Damm’s men in North By Northwest assume by Thornhill’s actions and nonchalant demeanour that he must be Kaplan). The CIA are oblivious to Bond’s hidden desperation to warn them about Goldfinger‘s plot to attack Fort Knox. Fort Knox is a literal monument to America’s economic and political power, a literal guardian of order as the presidential heads of the Mount Rushmore monument are its symbolic guardians. Also, the atomic bomb is a monument to the military might of the super powers but Bond is hand-cuffed to the bomb and trapped inside Fort Knox’s secure, impenetrable gold vault, trapped by its monument to order as Tracy is trapped inside the British Museum and Thornhill and Eve are trapped atop Mount Rushmore. Circumstances have stripped Bond of all his resources. His plan to warn the CIA, the same strategy by which he undermined Goldfinger’s scheme in the novel has failed, and even after managing to electrocute Oddjob, he is still unable to defuse the bomb. The complacent, self-assured of the Bond who stripped off his waterproof suit to reveal the white tuxedo underneath scarcely exists in this sequence; we are trapped by the symbols of Western capitalistic might that we did not even question when Bond was sent to destroy Ramirez’s operation in the movie’s pre-title sequence. As in the climax of Blackmail or North By Northwest, we no longer watch the action with the same detached amusement. The bomb that was a solution to a political and economic threat in Mexico becomes a challenge buried inside the obstacle of Fort Knox’s impenetrable gold vault. A monument to the capitalist order Bond was sent to Mexico to protect. We are reminded of the symmetry between the tense climax of every Bond movie and the more light-hearted pre-title sequence and our subconscious registers that they are polar opposites. The denouement, when the bomb disposal expert reaches across and switches off the bomb and the counter reads ‘007’ becomes a veritable epiphany as a result; Bond is forced to confront the implications and consequences of his own role as ‘blunt instrument’ in the hands of Western political and economic power.
The ending always answers the beginning.
© Craig Arthur 2008
Guest writer @ 2008-08-30