The Hildebrandt Rarity

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Goldfinger

#3You know those silly movies where the nerdy girl takes off her glasses and let's down her hair, and everybody suddenly realizes how hot she is, and she becomes amazingly popular?

That's what happened with Goldfinger. OK, OK, it's a really strained analogy...but look at the U.S. box office numbers. Dr. No: $6.4 million. From Russia With Love $9.9 million. Goldfinger? $23 million. Despite playing on only 64 screens over Christmas week, it made almost $3 million in its first two weeks of release...a record back in the day. There were stories about big city theatres holding showings 24 hours a day to meet demand. Suddenly, the British spy series was the most popular girl in school.

And how did the nerdy little James Bond remove his glasses and let down his hair, so everybody could see how sexy he was all along? By taking elements of the fantastic, that had been in the first two movies, and turning them up to 11, giving the public something they'd never quite seen before. There had been theme songs (sort of), but my word, what the hell was Shirley Bassey doing, capturing us with that teasing delivery of a brilliantly memorable tune?? Sure, we had a Geiger counter (woo hoo!) and a uber-briefcase...but that was nothing compared to The Car. There had been great deaths before, but A Naked Woman Covered in Gold Paint? There had been Bonds girls, but one named so scandalously?? (Be honest--how many of you got away with saying "Pussy" by telling your parents that it was OK because she was in that Bond movie?) Red Grant had been ominous, but come on--Oddjob was something to talk about at the water cooler. There had been insidious plots, but never an attack in the heart of America aimed at one of our national symbols of strength. There had been some humor in the previous Bond movies, but this one had parts that were out and out hilarious. It was as if, instead of merely being adapted fairly straightforwardly from the novel, the producers had somehow deliberately tapped into the American zeitgeist, picking and choosing those elements that would guarantee an enthusiastic reaction.

And yet...

How ridiculously popular was this film?? Was--nay, still is, to this day? Go ahead--take a poll amongst your non-Bond-fan friends and relatives. Ask them what their favorite Bond movie is. I'll wager that most will say Goldfinger (or, as one one my friends said, "that one where Bond had a laser pointed at his crotch"). Sure, part of that is the easy to remember title. But part of it is how primal it seemed to be, the first time all of the elements of what audiences think of as a "Bond film." And those elements came together so very, very well.

And yet...

Goldfinger was such a success because it took the elements of the series that had already been there and amplified them in the most crowd-pleasing way possible. And in the process, it became iconic, the template upon which almost every future Bond movie would be based (and compared to). From here on out, except for the odd deviation which was quickly repudiated, Bond became very much a formula. We were locked in--the teaser, Bond annoying M during his briefing, the jousting with Q, the larger-than-life villain, the Bond girl with the suggestive name, the unusual henchman, the Top 10 theme song, the difficult-to-maintain balance of humor and suspense, the gadgets and cars...for the next 30+ years the writers and producers would bend themselves (and the movies) into pretzels, trying to match what had happened in Goldfinger.

And yet...

Goldfinger is still #1 on many people's, and many critic's, list of best Bond Films. And it's not hard to see why. When you look st the series, a very convincing argument can be made that Goldfinger has A) the best teaser, B) the best theme song, C) the best villain, D) the best henchman, E) the best car, F) best one-liner (from which this blog took its name),etc., etc. And even if it's not number one in all of those categories, being rated so highly in all of these area must mean that this has got to be considered the best Bond film, right?

And yet...

And yet, I'm here to tell you that Goldfinger is NOT the best Bond movie. Oh, don't get me wrong...it's very, very good. But it's possible for something to be very, very good and still be somewhat overrated.

You can't just take some average of the rankings across various departments and use that to choose the best Bond film. First, that ignores the synergy that takes place between a film's elements...and obscures how the film works in toto. More importantly, it can obscure some of a movies faults, which might not turn up in one of the categories. And Goldfinger, for all it does well, has a few glaring faults.

First of all, it does not have the best Bond. Oh, I'm not referring to Sean Connery at all, he's great, as per usual. No, as clever and tight as the script is, it has the glaring defect of having the character of Bond be borderline incompetent as a secret agent. After the teaser, he fails, and fails, and fails again, and in the end foils the villain's plot not by wit or gadgets or toughness, but by stupid blind luck.

Others have made this point before, but allow me to elaborate:
  • Bond can't resist exceeding his orders initially. Instead of just keeping an eye on Goldfinger, he interferes with his penny-ante cheating at gin. As a result, Jill Masterson is killed, and Bond's cover is completely blown.
  • It's incomprehensible that M keeps Bond on the case, as Goldfinger now knows Bond's voice (at the very least), and Oddjob knows him on sight. But send Bond he does, to hook up with Goldfinger at the golf club. Bond's mission: to ingratiate himself to Goldfinger, and establish some business relationship with his gold bar bait. But Bond can't help screwing that up, too. Instead of letting Goldfinger cheat and win, and thus maybe building a relationship, he can't resist cheating back, which only enrages Goldfinger, and ensures that Bond will never be able to get into the "inside." Well played, James. Instead of taking his mission seriously, or taking Goldfinger seriously, he is more interested in macho game-playing.
  • Having the best car in the history of humanity, Bond just can't use it well. Sure, he gives a hot woman some flat tires. But he's unable to escape Goldfinger's goons in the woods; despite having a bulletproof windshield, he's driven away by a Swedish grandmother with a tommy gun. Too tough a foe for Bond and his super-carHe doesn't use the car's machine guns, or just run her over...he just turns and drives back into the complex! And finally, he loses a game of chicken--with himself!!Bond thinks that a small mirror--more than 6 feet off the ground and off to the right--is a car heading towards him?--and let's a reflection of his own headlights in a mirror force him to drive himself into a wall!! Gezz, not only did 007 ruin Q's car, he didn't even get any success out of it!! Totally worthless!! Plus, now the Chinese have Q's car technology!!
  • After that, Bond is captured, and his actions consist of getting knocked out, bluffing, getting knocked out, using the bathroom, getting locked up, escaping, getting recaptured immediately, sitting around, having a drink with Goldfinger, sitting around...He doesn't escape, and despite 1,001 possibilities, never comes close to letting Felix Leiter or MI-6 know that something is up. How could he have? How about turning the tracker in his show off, so his watchers know something's wrong?? Or turning it on and off in Morse code? Or, during his brief escape, actually escaping or finding a phone, or actually trying to leave the grounds?
  • He beats Oddjob, but only by the sheerest luck. Ken Adam: FANTASTIC Fort Knox design, but really...power cables just laying around like that in the open??
  • And of course, Bond cannot defuse the nuclear bomb himself. The unnamed CIA agent has to do it for him...by simply flipping the off switch. Fortunately for the world, Bond learned from this, and was much better at defusing nukes in the future...
  • In the final confrontation, he can't even outfight fatso Goldfinger...he only wins by firing off Goldfinger's gun while Auric has him in a bear hug!
When you look at all that, it's had to justify calling this the best Bond movie, isn't it? Not when Bond is acting more like Maxwell Smart than 007. He's a terrible, terrible secret agent in this movie.

Not so immune, after allThe second deficit in this film is Pussy Galore. Oh, the heresy I'm spouting, right? Again, nothing against Honor Blackman; I love her, and she's great. But (and I'll freely admit that this comes down 100% to personal opinion and taste), I just don't see any chemistry between Pussy and James. Since the entire resolution of the plot depends on his being able to sway her to betray Goldfinger, it's crucial that we believe it could happen. And I simply don't see it. Setting aside any gender politics and the L word, I just don't see any sense of attraction for Bond from her. When Bond has to physically force himself on Pussy in the barn...well, let's just say that that particular section of the movie hasn't aged well, shall we? So the crucial plot twist comes across as just that, rather than a credible character moment. Now, this won't be the only time there's a distinct lack of chemistry between Bond and his leading lady, and it's not a crippling defect. But it does seriously impair its potential as the best Bond film ever.
A Pussy aside: You know, it seems like once a decade the media decides to run with the meme that this year's new Bond girl is somehow new and special, that we've "never seen" a woman who was as capable as Bond (look at coverage for The Spy Who Loved Me, Tomorrow Never Dies, Die Another Day, etc). Funny how they never seem to remember Pussy Galore...
A Galore aside: Even though I took my blog title from the movie's OTHER immortal one-liner, this one may be the best exchange in movie history, particularly with Sean's delivery:
Bond: Who are you?
Pussy: My name is Pussy Galore.
Bond: I must be dreaming.
My third reason not to nominate this for the best Bond movie ever is the god-awful location work. I know that in a fairly straightforward adaptation of the novel ,they're somewhat limited by what Fleming gave them, but geez, this movie is pretty terrible on a travelogue level. After a non-descript Latin American nation which looks like someone's backlot, what do we have? Miami, but every scene with Bond or Goldfinger is very obviously shoot against a rear-screen projection; Switzerland, which aside from a couple of pretty mountain shots could have been shot in Bolton; and then Kentucky. Look at beautiful Kentucky.

The beauty of AmericaAnd more:

More gorgeous KentuckyFrankly, they weren't even trying with the glamorous locations this time out.

Finally, Guy Hamilton is no Terrance Young. Hamilton relies far, far too much on obvious trickery to get his shots, like a persistent overuse of rear-screen projection, and a horrible reliance on sped-up film to simulate action. Compare the Bond/Red Grant fight in From Russia With Love to Bond's fight with the guard in Goldfinger's cell, or Bond's little judo fight in the barn with Pussy. Young knew how to film such scenes to make them look realistic without resorting to distracting trickery that, just frankly, looks bad. Hamilton can't...at least not in this movie. He also lets certain scenes go slack and linger far too long--case in point, Bond using the restroom on Pussy's plane, which goes on approximately FOREVER. It's not terrible direction...but it's far below the standard already set for this series.

Look, I know I'm being hyper-nitpicky. But when we're talking about the exalted position of Best Bond Movie Ever, small distinctions make the difference. And in this case, I feel that the above mentioned flaws, as cleverly disguised as they are, are enough to knock Goldfinger out of the running. I dearly love it, it's still clearly top 5...but it's just not #1.

And his martini is still dry!But now let's accentuate the positive, starting with that teaser. If you were going to stick a snippet of a Bond film in a time capsule so future generations could understand what 007 was all about, it would HAVE to be this, right? The perfect James Bond mini-movie, the perfect distillation of everything the series is about, in easy-to-digest teaser form. The undercover, the gadgets, the tuxedo, the explosion, the girl, the fight, the death pun...as much as Goldfinger is Bond-template, the movie's teaser is even more so.

The theme song? Seriously, who can hear this and not have their attention immediately torn away from whatever they were doing? Bold and brassy from the first bars, and then Shirley Bassey's voice weaves in, hard-edged but seductive, growing more and more urgent, while describing our vile villain. Ecstasy.

Random taskOddjob. What can one say? He set the standard for mute Korean henchmen who throw shoes (oops, sorry, I mean hats). Harold Sakata takes a role that could have been unforgivably silly and somehow, using just grunts and facial expressions, makes Oddjob a figure of menace, not to mention the object of countless parodies. He outwits and outfights Bond at every opportunity. If only it weren't for electricity...An unforgettable henchman who would outshine most villains...

Dubbed but deadly
...but not Auric Goldfinger. No one could outshine him. The combination of Richard Maibaum's sparkling dialogue and Gert Frobe's acting make for a richly drawn character, a living, breathing human instead of an arch caricature. Goldfinger was greedy, boastful, arrogant, intensely clever, a shrewd judge of his opponents, funny. He loved games but always felt compelled to cheat, because he loved winning so much. A hugely successful businessman with divest interests on different continents, but a savage sociopath who thought nothing of killing tens of thousands to enrich himself. What a glorious creation.

Fuck off, 007And Desmond Llewellyn finally gets a chance to make Q his own. This is the Q we know and love. His decision to play Q as frustrated with Bond's cavalier attitude was brilliant, setting the stage for the next 4 decades. He never jokes about his work, and 007 rarely takes it seriously...the perfect combination!! Plus, our first shots of the projects in Q's lab!!

I'm very, very VERY whiteI would be remiss if I didn't dump on poor Cec Linder, who is clearly the worst Felix Leiter EVER. One of the things that covers up 007's ineffectiveness in this movie is that Americans look like much bigger dolts. The FBI and CIA have NOTHING in their files on Goldfinger. He has Chinese soldiers, nerve gas and nuclear weapons smuggled into the country, and the U.S. doesn't have a clue. Goldfinger is conspiring with every top gangster in America (who all show up at his ranch while it's supposedly under CIA surveillance) AND the Chinese government to knock of Fort Knox, and nobody in America has the slightest clue. Geez, no wonder we need Bond to save us! Anyway, Leiter is the perfect CIA man for this movie's dim views of our intelligence capabilities: he doesn't do much except smirk like a frat boy at Bond's antics, and stand around cluelessly. Smarmy and not helpful, he's just a terrible conception of a companion for Bond.

I hope I'm not dumping too hard on this movie, because I do love it to death. The things it does well, it does EXCEPTIONALLY well. As a piece of popular culture, it's undeniably powerful and iconic. And of course, this was the movie that made Bond BOND, the phenomenon, and ensured that we would still be getting Bond movies for the next forty years. They took off the glasses, let down the hair, and everyone saw how gorgeous these movies were.

I just want it remembered that some of us thought the girl was pretty damn beautiful before the transformation, and that there was a Bond who was loved by many of us before Goldfinger.

SNELL'S RANDOM THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS:

**Uhh...the Chinese government tried to detonate a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil, had armed soldiers shoot American troops, and tried to kill 40,000 with nerve gas. Wouldn't that be considered, well, an act of war? Shouldn't there have been immediate (and probably military) reprisals against China? Maybe even WWIII? In Tomorrow Never Dies, the British and Chinese are set to go to war over much less...in Goldfinger, in keeping with the hapless Americans theme, I guess we just shrug and smirk, like Felix Leiter: "oh, those rascally Communists!!"

**Once again Maibaum's script makes a twist that makes the movie more interesting than the book. In the novel, there was a nuclear bomb, but that was only to blow open the doors of the depository. Goldfinger's plan really was to steal the gold (albeit only some of it). It was a SMERSH-backed plan, not the Chinese. But by having Bond point out the futility of trying to physically steal that much gold, and having the bomb irradiate the U.S. gold supply, Maibuam turns a trumped-up robbery scheme into a wonderfully scary geopolitical thriller. (For those too young to remember, the U.S., as well as much of the world, was on the Gold Standard, which meant that the dollar was literally backed by gold. And if most of our gold supply was rendered unusable, well, suddenly the dollar was backed by nothing, and theoretically worthless. It certainly would have been economic chaos, at least in the short term. I always like to that that this movie was the reason that no government in the world uses the gold standard today...)

**James Bond disses the Beatles. I'm just reminding you.

**We get our first mention of a specific Double-O besides, Bond, 008.

**Why, exactly, does Goldfinger kill all the gangsters? It makes no sense on any level. We'll have an extended discussion this weekend...

**Worst acting award? All the soldiers who collapsed the moment the (supposed) nerve-gas spewing planes passed overhead. Given that the gangsters in Goldfinger's den survived for 20 seconds or so, and managed to run around, it hard to see how the gas, at a lesser concentration and a greater distance, could make everyone collapse so fast. So not the most convincing effort at making Goldfinger think the gas had worked, really...

**Speaking of which, in what must be less than 12 hours, Pussy leaves the farm, somehow tracks down Leiter, convinces him about Goldfinger's plot, convinces his superiors, and "helps" them swap out the nerve gas canisters on the plane, and get back in time. And in even less time, Leiter and the Americans must come up with fake gas canisters, and arrange for 40,000+ people to pretend to die. Not a lot of time to get all that done, is all I'm saying. of course, Bond's actions during that same time...? Still waiting...

**Memo to all future villains--if you're going to have a secret drug lab, DON'T fill it with lots of barrels of nitro, conveniently labelled as such. It does make it ever so easy to blow up your installations.

Please--let me make it easier to destroy my hidden complex**Gert Frobe's voice was dubbed by another actor, as his accent was apparently indecipherable. I just wonder, was Frobe such a huge star in Europe that it justified giving his role to a man who couldn't speak English comprehensibly? Why didn't they cast someone who spoke better English? Don't get me wrong, I'm glad they cast him, because his performance is wonderful. I just find it an unusual casting decision...

**You would think it wouldn't be so easy to fly a bunch of civilian planes over Fort Knox...yes, I know that they were "letting" the plan work, so Goldfinger would bring in the bomb. But it was unrealistic of Goldfinger to not expect some air response from the Army or Air Force, no?

**Bond Score: 4. Bonita in the teaser, Dink in Miami, Jill Masterson, and Pussy Galore. Cumulative Bond score for 3 movies: 11.

**Tilly Masterson: WORST. SHOT. EVER.

Really, can ANYBODY be that bad a shot??I mean, come on...

**Speaking of Tilly, she has a much different fate in the novel. I'll discuss that this weekend, too.

And of course,
And dat's da truth
Be here next week.

12 comments:

  1. Awesome.

    My parents wouldn't let me watch Bond movies as a kid, so I came at Bond first through the books. When I was finally able to see Bond movies on my own, I filtered them through the books.

    Even though Goldfinger was more or less faithful to the novel, I was turned off by its excessiveness as well as Bond's incompetence and Leiter's just not being Leiter. It doesn't even make it into my Top Five. It may have been a huge influence on the rest of the series, but in all the wrong ways I think.

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  2. After the teaser, he fails, and fails, and fails again, and in the end foils the villain's plot not by wit or gadgets or toughness, but by stupid blind luck.

    This is true of a surprisingly large number of great movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark is another example. On the macro level, nothing Indy does makes a whit of difference for the Nazis-disintegrated-by-Yahweh ending. (On the micro level, Indy *does* save Marion from torture and death at the Nazis' hands, though.)

    On Red China's involvement: Aren't Goldfinger's men (like Oddjob) basically Korean mercenaries, though? That was the case in the book, anyway, and (along with a nuclear expert who had "gone rogue") would give the Chinese government a certain amount of "plausible deniability."

    One thing I've never quite been sure about is whether the mere irradiation of the Fort Knox gold would have the effect Goldfinger wants. The gold is still *there*, and even in the days of the gold standard, I don't think the system relied on literally, physically moving big piles of gold from country to country, any more than modern financial transactions involve moving big piles of paper money. I think the markets *might* react the way Goldfinger wants, but if I were him, I'd probably want to vaporize the gold rather than merely irradiate it.

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    1. On Red China's involvement: Aren't Goldfinger's men (like Oddjob) basically Korean mercenaries, though? That was the case in the book, anyway, and (along with a nuclear expert who had "gone rogue") would give the Chinese government a certain amount of "plausible deniability."

      Aside from Oddjob who Goldfinerger does identify as Korean, the other oriental men, as well as Mai Lee/Mai Lai, all speak Cantonese (even though no subtitles are shown). They speak a real langauge with legitimate dialog in the right context. A valid argument around plausible deniability would be whether the Chinese hired guns were from Hong Kong (UK) or southern China (PRC).

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  3. David--I suspect the nuclear device limited the plausible dependability a bit, as even then there must have been ways to trace parts and radiation signatures and such.

    As to the irradiation, that depends on whom you believe in the gold standard debate. Up until Nixon took us off it, in theory the U.S. was committed to redeem cash dollars for the same value in gold on demand...which would have been difficult if the gold was glowing.

    Every note had to be backed by a physical substance of value (at least those held by national and foreign banks, though many argued that should apply to individual dollar holders, too), according to pro-gold-standard folks, lest people realize that money was meaningless, and there no longer be any constraints on govt spending, and it's the end of civilization as we know it. Of course, by 1964 most of the rest of the industrialized society was off the gold standard, and chaos didn't exactly ensure...nor did it after the U.S. (Of course, if you want to take the current world economic situation, where there's mass panic because it turns out that everyone's "growth" was backed by figments and wishes, as an argument for going back on the gold standard, some have already been making that argument.)

    At the very least it would have caused a huge crisis of confidence about the U.S. economy ("Look--the U.S. can't even protect it's own border against nuclear attack!) that would have run up the price of gold, as traditionally happens in time of financial uncertainty.

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  4. Pedantry FROM THE FUTURE: That's no Tommy Gun. It looks like a German MP40 or similar.

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  5. Maybe I'm a minority of one, but I HATE Shirley Bassey's theme. That overblown growl/nasal/pseudo-purr that was so popular with certain singers of the sixties (I'm especially looking at you, Eartha Kitt) just grates on my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. To me it's not so much "sexy" as "goat being fed to a circular saw".

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  6. I agree with everything you've said - hugely fun, but Bond is completely ineffectual and yet, and yet... I LIKE that particular Bond. I like how human he is, how vulnerable he is, how he could have died a bunch of times, but was saved at the last moment, how he's driven by his crotch more than his brain (almost-rape aside, that's an uncomfortable moment even if she does give in).

    And it's a Bond that was there before Goldfinger, and is there after. This is the Bond that drives M and Q mad. The guy who used a useless Beretta, who drinks a watered-down martini (stirred would be the more potent option), and who is in much more trouble through at least the first 4 films (where my Bond-a-thon is now at) than the superhero Roger Moore would turn him into. (Dalton reverts to human, then Brosnan back to superhero, and Craig back to human.)

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  7. Oh, man, you've stepped into it with your martini propaganda.

    President Bartlett aside, shaking is better, with better flavor, more anti-oxidants, being colder, and dissolving the vermouth better. But stir away, if you prefer.

    I believe you'll find that, upon further review, Brosnan was generally much more to the human side than the superhuman side...

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  8. Shows what I know about martinis ;) Really: Nothing.

    We'll see about Brosnan. I gave up around the middle of the second film, I think. Goldeneye was awesome, but somewhere in there, I smelled the Moore years coming back and ran the other way. The Bond-a-thon is my chance to see many of these for the first time (certainly as an adult, but I'd say I've never seen a good half of the Bond films) and evaluate or re-evaluate them properly and in context. Capsule reviews forthcoming.

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  9. Before I get to my comment on Goldfinger, let me tell you how much I'm enjoying your blog. I stumbled upon it while doing Internet research on Bond film rankings (I recently decided to watch them all again and make my own) and it's fantastic; this is some of the most sophisticated Bond commentary I've come across. Kudos.

    I'm commenting because I want to point out something that has always bothered me about Goldfinger: Felix and the Americans' ridiculous ad hoc plan to have the ~40000 troops fake their deaths and let Goldfinger waltz into Fort Knox. Rather than simply storming Goldfinger's compound and arresting him, the plan is to let him capture Fort Knox and attempt an assault within a ~ten-minute window? And if the reason for that plan was to ensure that Goldfinger brought the bomb, could the Americans not have hidden thousands of troops inside of Fort Knox, ready to intercept Goldfinger's men as soon as they made it inside? Simply allowing Goldfinger to bring the nuclear bomb into Fort Knox untouched was ludicrous. But I suppose it can be written off as another example of American incompetence in a Bond movie.

    Again, great work on the blog. Keep it up!

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  10. A couple of things: First, why crush the Lincoln? Or at least take the gold out of it first? It's a very complicated thing to separate the gold from 5000 pounds of luxury car...

    The reason, of course, is that it's fun to see a new Lincoln being crushed. So the audience wins.

    Second: The reason he explains the plot so elaborately to soon-to-die mobsters is that the audience wouldn't know it either. Yes, Bond needed to know, but so did we.

    Third: What makes this movie great is that it's so intent on entertaining the audience and so determined to keep the audience atop the plot, that it throws out all logic in the process. It builds up goodwill with its viewers so quickly that all critical concerns are tossed aside at least until the film is over.

    And by the time you realize it all makes no sense, you've had too good a time.

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  11. Something I just LOVE about "Goldfinger" that I mention only because, in a movie already loaded with iconic Bond moments, it almost never gets mentioned: The briefing with Colonel Smithers.

    They could just as easily have had Smithers there in M's office in the previous scene to deliver the necessary exposition, but the whole black-tie, cigars, and brandy scene (which opens with a beautiful tracking shot down that long table) is a thing of beauty--as is that set!

    Richard Vernon's low-key and dignified performance as Smithers is wonderful (can you believe Vernon is only 39 years old in that scene?!). And of course there's the "overdose of Bons Bois" line -- with Bernard Lee later sniffing curiously at the brandy. Love it.

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