Friday, April 18, 2014

Terror is a Man (Gerardo De Leon, 1959)

(On the occasion of Gerardo de Leon's ongoing Centennial Celebration, The Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA), in cooperation with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) screened Terror is a Man at the Tanghalang Manuel Conde at CCP, April 12, at 4 pm. 

The film is available on Amazon and Netflix, respectively)

The Island of Dr. De Leon

Let's get expectations out of the way right now: Gerardo de Leon's Terror is a Man--about a scientist (Dr. Charles Girard) who surgically transforms animals (well, one animal; the production budget presumably couldn't afford any more) into human beings--isn't very frightening. Oh, some extremely sensitive adults and a handful of impressionable kids might have been swept away back in 1964 when Hemisphere Films reissued it under the less evocative title Blood Creature (it was a commercial failure when first released as a Lynn-Romero production back in 1959--an account nicely outlined in Scott Ashlin's horror blog 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting), but there isn't much gore compared with, say, the shocking bright blood of the Hammer films. The horror here recalls rather the Universal classics of the '30s: Todd Browning's Dracula, or James Whale's Frankenstein films or The Invisible Man, films that favor suggestion over splatter, their most distinctive attribute an atmosphere of lyrical dread. 

On the surface a no-budget adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau with a surprisingly literate screenplay from Paul Harber (whose career included only two more--one for an Eddie Romero kidnap drama, the other for an episode of Hawaii Five-O--plus a lifetime of television acting), the film could be a fascinating companion piece alongside Erle C. Kenton's classic The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Where the earlier version had a more emphatic tone--lush oversized sets evoking Moreau's jungle to great (if expensive) effect, Moreau himself played with half-sane intensity by the inimitable Charles Laughton--De Leon's adaptation is set in the languor of the real tropics (shot, if IMDb is to be trusted, in Corregidor Island, off the coast of Cavite), his Moreau (played with a lightly ambisexual note by Francis Lederer), a decidedly more subdued figure. 

It's instructive I think to compare the way Moreau explains his methods to Pendrick (the novel's protagonist/narrator) to the way Laughton's Moreau explains to the '32 Pendrick to the way Girard explains to our film's Pendrick figure, William Fitzgerald (a stolid and rather bland Richard Derr). Wells' Moreau goes to some lengths to point out historical parallels to his work--the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition; the "mediaeval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar-cripples" described by Victor Hugo in The Man Who Laughs; the Siamese Twins (a covert operation, he claims). Along the way Moreau's brutally frank language suggests a man so monomaniacally devoted to his field of study you daren't question his motives (he devoted his whole life's energy to it, so he must be right). Laughton's Moreau updates his methods to include "plastic surgery, blood transfusions, gland extracts, ray baths" (Ray baths? Similar to tanning beds, only more radioactive?); to Moreau's monomania he adds a winking smirk (isn't this amusing? Aren't you entertained by all the nonsense?).

De Leon dispenses with the horrorshow, the electric moment (in Wells novel) when Moreau drives a penknife into his leg, the even more vivid moment when onscreen Moreau presents one of his subjects on an operating table, howling in agony and terror. Girard and Fitzgerald instead have a discussion in the office, and Girard in the manner of a dull lecturer explains how he worked up from "skin and bone grafts" to "alteration of major organs." And as medical science has advanced since the '30s (having in turn advanced from the time of the novel's writing) he points out that "the real difference is in the brain," and proposes a chemical (taken from gland extracts, of course) that can "bring about an alternation of the individual cells, cell division and cell growth." Girard's methods seem more recognizably like our own partly because the science isn't so very far from our own, partly because De Leon's MD training helps ensure authenticity (you see it in the handwashing, the surgical instruments, the working autoclave in one corner), but also partly because Girard seems so calmly reasonable (where Wells' was insanely focused), so serious (where Laughton's was playfully coy) that we're halfway sold by his earnestness. This isn't Moreau the madman we're faced with but Moreau the progressive intellectual, the dedicated humanitarian, who can't think of one reason why he shouldn't be doing what he's doing--one reason why what he's doing is wrong. 

(A sidenote: Francis Lederer (Girard) who changed his name from the more German Franz Lederer (he was in Pabst's great '29 film Pandora's Box) was actually born Frantisek Lederer in Prague, the birthplace of the Golem and the word "robot" (from Karel Capek's classic play R.U.R.), and a major center of Czech puppetry--appropriate, considering Lederer plays yet another manipulative fabricator of artificial beings)

That's script and man, in a way more disturbing than the figure found in either novel or classic film because he's more persuasive--invincible, almost--in his solemn conviction. 

Then there's De Leon's camera, which in sequence after wordless sequence undermines Girard's words with quiet effectiveness. 

The first hunting sequence, for example, early in the film--the camera in a parody of the famous shot in Murnau's Sunrise pushes through leaves and branches to peer at a sleeping village. A native sits by a fire, watchful--he senses something lurking out there, isn't sure what. Cut to a shot of the camera approaching the man's back, as we belatedly realize: this the creature's point of view; growls and cries and sudden lunge, the actual death elided over with cuts not unlike the sudden transitions found in dreams. Cut to a wide shot of the entire village, to the sound of screams as the bodies are found, and the camera in a perverse inversion of Murnau (and anticipating Hitchcock's retreating shot in Frenzy by some thirteen years) pulls back into the surrounding jungle.

Then there's the creature itself, hidden not just by camera angles or deep shadows, but by layer after layer of surgical bandages. De Leon the MD probably asked why the creatures in Kenton's and James Whale's films don't spend more time under wraps--Whale's is studded with long stitches that don't bleed out, the stitching never once tearing no matter how violently it moves. A practical question, but looking at the creature, at the tear-brimmed eyes peering out from the reeking gauze, and all questions of plausibility fall away. This is a creature in agony, capable of doing anything and everything just to make the suffering stop. 

Unmentioned yet plain as bandages is the subtext of racism: Girard is the imperialist white man attempting to remake the Malay 'beast' into a civilized being (the story is set in a South Pacific island named La Ysla de Sangre (Blood Island)). Seated at a table and surrounded by Malay servants (one boy waves flies away with a whisk on a pole), having just been served a presumably Western meal, Girard's wife Frances (the well-endowed Greta Thyssen) gratefully toasts their guest for reminding them they "can still be civilized on occasion." She adds that she's "forgotten we have good china or silver, or the manners to use them." Girard's native-born assistant Walter (a sensually sinister Oskar Kesse) mutters the hope that he can get "that black devil back where he belongs"--presumably strapped to an operating table, shrieking (the sharp ear might catch the pronoun he used, an implicit admission that the creature is an equal). Girard contemptuously dismisses the natives on the island as "superstitious" for leaving just because an 'animal' was on the loose (though to his credit he thinks New Yorkers would probably act the same way). With every sneer and suggested condescension we Filipinos can't help but bristle; with every unthinking line of dialogue the Western actors affirm their superiority over the natives (us) and over the creature himself, coded to be the most native inhabitant of all (a supernative, if you like).

Then there's fraternal hatred: the creature kills several of the natives, the rest flee in fear; when it--he--encounters Frances, he spares her. Why? A Filipino's immediate unthinking (kneejerk) response: "oho, he likes white meat." Doesn't matter if actress Lilia Duran, who plays one of the victims, is a fresh-faced beauty--the fact that Thyssen is white (and top-heavy) trumps that. One of the uglier subtexts of the '33 Kong (which none of the remakes managed to mitigate--and which in fact is exacerbated in the Jackson version) is that Kong clearly prefers the white blonde--the first he's ever seen--over any number of black women offered (the latter he kills; the former he takes with him to Skull Mountain, presumably for an evening of date rape). De Leon's creature seems to unthinkingly follow this pattern--

--only he knows her; she took care of him over two years and countless surgical procedures. Where Girard would often inflict pain, she would often take it away. Where nearly everyone  in the island (natives included) regard him as some kind of stalking evil, she doesn't. She fears him but doesn't hate him--if anything, she pities him. Frances is both Girard's wife and surgical nurse, and nurses often represent compassion, mercy, a surcease of pain--and the creature recognizes that. Racist? Perhaps not. 

Final bit of business (skip this paragraph if you intend to watch the film!): Harber has Fitzgerald say to Frances: "I want to help you;" later Walter says the same thing, then attempts to rape her (Fitzgerald at one point finds bruises on Lilia Duran's arm--if we go by De Leon's lexicon, Walter is the pervert found in many of De Leon's films who arrives at sexual gratification through sadism). At a certain point the word "help" acquires a sarcastically obscene connotation, as she turns down aid of all kinds from males of all sides. When she finally ends up in a beach watching the dying creature float away in a rowboat, she casually remarks: "he wanted to help me." All sarcasm is gone from her voice: instead there's a bizarre yet poignant longing--as if she recognized the genuine nature of the 'help' the creature offered, a once-in-a-lifetime offer that she was very possibly a fool to reject.  

First published in Businessworld, 4.11.14

Monday, April 14, 2014

Game of Thrones

(Warning: plot twists and storylines discussed in close detail)

A song of nice and ire

Having wasted an entire weekend gorging on almost the entire first three seasons and the first two episodes of the fourth season of Game of Thrones (a partial adaptation of George R. R. Martin's epic series A Song of Ice and Fire), I pretty much came to the conclusion this is the most entertaining American TV show around: intricate, sexy, hilarious, harrowing, a vast world you could watch in lieu of most other TV series--or movie franchises for that matter.

Think about it: the intrigues revolving about King's Landing recall everything from Rome (the decadence) to The Borgias (the incestuous affairs) to The Tudors (royal descendants of the combatants from The War of the Roses--the history of which Martin used as partial basis for his series) to of all things The Sopranos (the hits, the war between gangs). Up north beyond the wall walk an army straight out of The Walking Dead--only these zombies aren't limited to humans, they fight and follow orders, and they aren't stopped by anything as simple as a crossbow bolt to the brain. 

Then the franchises--Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit--though can I say here and now how much more I vastly prefer Martin's series over Tolkien? Not only is the plotting more baroque and dialogue more sophisticated, there's sex--actual sex--motivating and influencing momentous events, the way they do in real life!

It's not a particularly well-directed series. The battle sequences have little distinctive shape, the close combat is mostly shaky-cam footage cut ADHD style; the zombies are often digital creations without the on-camera solidity of George Romero's undead. I'm especially disappointed with the CGI dragons--Matthew Robbins proved in his criminally underseen Dragonslayer (whose dragon--Vermithrax Pejorative--gets mentioned in an early episode) that it's possible to depict the creatures using large puppet parts and complex practical effects to considerable dramatic impact. The lesson, it seems, has been largely forgotten.

At the same time those dragons, though digital, are a major source of the series' appeal. We first see them as three large eggs, which legend claims have ossified into solid rock; their hatching is a tremendous moment, when Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) walks into her husband's flaming funeral pyre (a gypsylike healer tied to a nearby post, screaming in immolated agony) and in the morning stands in a steaming circle of ash--the little hatchlings crawl up her leg, past her unburnt pubes, over a sooty shoulder to loose a thin screech. Martin is playing the long game here, introducing tales of the creatures as figures of myth and legend, revealing them right after a spectacular bonfire, doling out their presence in bits and piece--not too much, just a brief appearance per episode, perhaps even (if we're well-behaved) the occasional well-deserved torching--while word of their growth reaches the outside world. Despite the fact that they look fake to the eye, to the mind they've grown in presence such that you're eager to see more, no matter how they're rendered. 

Martin does the same for other creatures--the zombies (or wights as they're called) lurk mostly in shadows, their blue eyes glimmering in the dark; at one point there's a glimpse of a giant ("don't stare too long--they're shy; and when they stop being shy they get angry; and when they get angry I've seen them pound a man straight into the ground like a hammer on a nail")--but none of the other creations send as powerful a tingle up and down the spine.

We're talking effects and fantasy creatures, but the glory of Martin's world are of course his characters. Daenerys is a prime example: she starts the series as chattel, a bride sold to a barbarian warlord to be raped on her wedding night; when the warlord dies and her people wander the desert in exile she proves herself a strong leader who acquires not just dragons but an army of dedicated warriors.

She's no perfect leader; she makes mistakes early on and in one memorable episode is forced to choose between the life of her husband and that of her child, with results far from what she expected (in Martin's world nothing's guaranteed, satisfactory or even final, not even the desired outcome paid for by horrific sacrifice). When she's wronged she can be extravagantly cruel--there's the aforementioned healer, and later she orders a man and woman sealed into a vault--but her loyalty to the faithful can be equally extravagant. Cruel or magnanimous, her gestures betray a grand style--even if she wasn't played by the gorgeous Ms. Clarke she'd still be unforgettable. 

Recent commentators have praised the show for its complex depiction of powerful women (Daenerys, among others). Noted; I especially like it that the series introduces its women as adolescent fantasy figures, either naked courtesans or trembling virgins, then reveals their more complex, less comfortable sides (Lady Cersei (Lena Heady) is the manipulative power behind her son King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and yet is powerless before her father Lord Tywin (Charles Dance); Lady Catelyn Stark is the heart and strength of her family but when goaded into a discussion of trust and honor risks the unthinkable: her single most valuable hostage for her hostaged daughters). As for Daenerys, I'm sure her emphasis on liberty for all, including the soldiers she bought, will appeal to many in the audience, but there's a fanaticism to her, a rod of unbending steel to her character that I find unnerving--especially as she has ten thousand stone-cold killers behind her, over a hundred thousand newly freed if untrained slaves behind them and dragons the size of winged horses hovering above all. This is Martin we're talking about; if we admire anyone now I'm sure he'll find a way of making us regret that admiration later.

I'm more willing to bet on the decency of a more obviously flawed human being like Tyrion (the wonderful Peter Dinklage). Call him the Walter White of Westeros--he's your less-than-average (heightwise) whoremonger and drunk, who out of sheer boredom or sense of rejection finds himself reading more than expected for a royal, is hence is smarter than the average royal. Tyrion is forced (along with the rest of his family) into the role of court intriguer, and at one point admits (as White does in his own series) that he enjoys all the politicking--he's good at it. That he's the everyman's point of view in Martin's world, and that that point of view is some two feet lower than average I think says something--about Martin's regard for the everyman or, more likely (and interestingly), the everyman's status in the world (low, but unsteadily rising). 

On the fourth season's first two episodes: well, the first ('Two Swords') is basically a series of introductions and re-introductions, a toe re-dipped into the pool where the game is played. I remember it best for a new character's arrival (Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal) with his marked Spanish accent, deft dagger hand, and mission of vengeance involving one of the Lannister knights) and confirmation of another's destiny (Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in recovering her stolen blade commits her second murder). The 'two swords' of the title obviously refer to the swords Lord Tywin has ordered made from the Stark greatsword Ice, its vast shaft of Valerian steel melted down and reforged into two blades--in a way the reforging symbolizes a diminishment, the passing of a great house (Stark) to become lesser houses (the smaller Starks and uh Jon Snow?). I suspect it also refers to one of the swords being gifted to Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and to Arya's reclaiming the smaller but beloved Needle. One with a stump for a right hand regards his blade as worse than useless, a mockery of his former prowess; the other in her humbler blade finds a liberating power, a reason to go on living. Two blades for two owners, a different significance for each.

The second episode ('The Lion and the Rose') is memorable for a throwaway moment, when Joffrey demands a name for the sword Grandfather Tywin gifted to him on his wedding (the second of the aforementioned Two Swords). Here we learn that Martin is a true enthusiast of the fantasy genre: someone yells "Stormbringer!" (The legendary demonic blade featured in Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone series), another "Terminus!"(The double-bladed, hydrargyrum-filled blade Severian the Torturer wielded in Gene Wolfe's great science fiction--not fantasy--series The Book of the New Sun). It's also memorable for a death during the celebrations--can't have a wedding in a Martin story without a murder can we (admittedly Tyrion's didn't, though there were humiliations galore)? Typical, to give us a death we've been wanting for so long, and immediately pin the blame on a favorite character. By now we should  have known better--in Martin's stories you can't have what you dearly wished for without paying some kind of high price. 

There's also a brief scene where the red priestess Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) talks to Stannis' daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) about gods--Shireen speaks of the Seven Gods and Melisandre about the One True One. Martin's careful not to make the identification too close, but Melisandre's religion looks suspiciously like Christianity, with its monotheism and past (hopefully) propensity to burn heretics at the stake (the Seven Gods, on the other hand, seem to represent good clean pantheism). Seems that in the novels the parody is in the same position the original was under the Roman Empire--a lurker in the shadowy margins regarded with fear and suspicion, but poised to engulf the land. 

If we consider Martin's novels (and the series made from them) a world and Martin absolute god of that world, I'd call Martin a generous and sadistic deity both, cunning in the way he avoids cliches, imaginative in realizing his creations; so far he's kept stubborn control, and while not everyone is willing to follow (especially after The Red Wedding, where Shakespeare's phrase "as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods" applies with more jawdropping force than in any other example I can think of in recent popular fiction),
 others keep a tight hold while firmly seated on the emotionally epic roller-coaster ride he's given us. Forget Daenerys, Cersei, ruthless Tywin or even psychotic Joffrey: any craven act, any moral outrage, any spectacularly sadistic torture or perversion or combination thereof comes first and foremost from Martin's mind--and (to be fair) so do any act of quiet heroism, or unexpected mercy, or lifelong sacrifice. In his head--that's where the real game's played.


An interpretation of Tyrion Lannister, by Noe Tortosa

Friday, April 11, 2014

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

Backwards Bond

(Needless to say, story and finale discussed in detail here)

Not really a big fan of Sam Mendes--thought American Beauty a plodding, watered-down version of Blue Velvet, thought Road to Perdition a pretentious if handsomely shot adaptation of the graphic novel. Mendes has talent, but it's difficult to get a read on him as a filmmaker--there isn't a much of a distinct personality, visually or emotionally speaking.

Which makes it a pleasure, I suppose, to say Mendes has finally found his metier, as an above-average director of Bond films.

Skyfall is back-to-basics Bond, and yes the producers have tried to breathe life into the tired franchise before, via revamp (the preferred term nowadays being 'reboot') or untimely demise. Here Bond pretty much does die, shot in the chest and dropped hundreds of feet into what looks like an inch of water (Chuck Jones would have milked that setup to, well, death)

Nowhere to go but up, then. The basic premise is that former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) has emerged from the service's shadowed past to revenge himself on Bond and, through him, former boss M (Judi Dench)--seems she once surrendered Silva to the enemy, who tortured him for months; now he feels the need to pay her back the favor, with interest.

Dark and complex stuff which Mendes seems to want to incorporate into his concept of Bond. Basically Bond is at war with himself or a photographic negative of himself, Silva being a less tough, less loyal, less sane Bond. Both are (were) M's favorite sons; both responded to her stern ministrations, betrayal included, according to their respective natures. Both love and hate her in equal measure, with equal intensity.
For the role Bardem dons yet another bad wig, blonde this time --a signal that Silva is every bit as badass as Anton Chigurh, perhaps? A comic response to Daniel Craig's close-cropped pate? Bond as the embodiment of British values with Silva its inversion, his flowing Spanish accent an affront against all those precisely clipped vowels?

It's not bad. The film's real stars are Roger Deakins' gorgeous amber lighting (Skyfall, Bond's ancestral ruins, looks like a beautifully barbaric heap of stones, lit up from within by out-of-control gasoline fires) and Bardem's giggly brilliant psychopath (do I like him better than Chigurh in No Country for Old Men? Sure; here you know what's eating him up inside--can't help but react with revulsion when he's suddenly all tenderness towards M, caressing her like the mother she never was). If I have a complaint it's that they don't do enough with Silva--the man is deadly until he nears his target, then his aim goes bad, his luck turns sour, his brains soften into mush. I suppose it's inevitable, even necessary: if he were consistently brilliant the movie would be over in forty minutes, tops, with M's and Bond's heads on pikes. 

Silva's overtures to Bond are fascinating; equally fascinating are Bond's coy replies ("What makes you think this is my first time?"). His bluff called Silva drops the pose, which is a disappointment--I'd loved to see him persist; more, I'd love to see Bond tempted. "Join me or joust with me; link arms to slay our spiritual matriarch"--that might have been a more interesting conflict. 

But no, Mendes' subversion is a tease; like Silva nearing his target Mendes' aim fails and he flails about, leaving us with Business as Usual and the Occasional Big Explosion. Bond may be abused but will never seek vengeance (at least not against the Crown); he may be enticed but will never be seduced; he may have his heartstrings tugged, but God forbid that it actually break. 

A brief sidenote on the women--but the fact that the women are sidenotes already says something. Dench's M plays a significant role, true; also true that she's helpless for most of the picture (in chess she's the king not queen), makes bumbling decisions, ultimately steps aside in favor of yet another male authority figure (was Dench tired of the role, or did she ask for too much money?). Naomie Harris' Eve is a more entertaining foil to Bond, but doesn't get to bed him; Berenice Marlohe's Severin does bed him, but ends up as punchline to a sadistic joke. Good girl settles docilely behind secretarial desk, bad girl gets screwed in both senses? Bond politics are as retrograde as ever, only nowadays the filmmakers can't use the times as an excuse anymore--actually you're not sure what possible excuse they can offer, or if they have any to offer at all...

Is this the greatest Bond flick ever? Settle down; a little perspective might help. Skyfall is arguably the best recent Bond, but my list of preferred titles would include Never Say Never (for the concept of an aging, worn-out Bond); the original Casino Royale (for sheer anarchic perversity--John Huston and Val Guest as two of six directors; Orson Welles as Le Chiffre (can you imagine if they made him director?), Woody Allen as Bond's younger misfit brother); On Her Majesty's Secret Service (for the moment when Bond does break down, leaving him more emotionally naked than any of his women ever were or could be); and above all Goldfinger (for achieving Bondian perfection on the third attempt).

In fact one might as well drop the other titles and stay with the gold standard. Anthony Burgess included the seventh Bond book in 99 Novels, his list of the best 20th-century fiction; Robert Bresson confessed to being a fan of the film. Burgess liked the novel, I suspect, because the prose is so evocative--a meal of stone crabs topped by melted butter washed down with iced pink champagne inspires ravenous growls from the unwary belly; a wagered game of golf turns into a thrilling cat-and-mouse competition. 

The novel is divided into three parts: "Coincidence;" "Happenstance;" "Enemy Action." Fleming thought of the story as a series of encounters between Bond and Goldfinger where the stakes grow ever larger, the loathing between them ever more intense; as Bond approaches--first a chance encounter (Coincidence), later an assigned mission (Happenstance), much later an all-or-nothing desperation ploy (Enemy Action)--Goldfinger himself expands in size from card cheat to SMERSH agent to larger-than-life Bond supervillain. It's one of the most elegant plots I know, a magician's trick sapling unfolding and unpacking to bloom into a mighty redwood, in the vague shape of a mushroom cloud.

There's an embarrassment of riches here, from Shirley Bassey's rendition of the title song to Robert Brownjohn's gold-dipped beauties to Ken Adam's gigantic sets, their bunker-cavern feel recalling his work in Dr. Strangelove--another film from the same year that dealt with the anxieties of the nuclear age. Screenwriter Paul Dehn may not be adapting literature (though Burgess might beg to differ) but possibly Dehn knew of what he wrote--a year later, he would adopt one of John Le Carre's finest novels to the big screen. The director Guy Hamilton isn't in the same caliber as Sam Mendes, but he doesn't need to be--he's working from Fleming's perfectly structured book, and with the help of Ted Moore (who lensed all the early Bonds) achieves a bright-lit comic-book look that is part adventure, part parody, pretty much all entertainment. 

That said, there are moments when Hamilton transcends his craftsman's credentials--the attacker-reflected-in-the-woman's-eye shot which Bresson so admired, for example. The opening skirmish is a series of lightning-fast lunges across the hotel room floor that ends in a literally electrifying checkmate (said ending foreshadowing the grimmer, even bigger finale). Fleming's crude circular saw is upgraded into a memorably cool laser, with the even more memorable exchange: 

"Do you expect me to talk?" 

"No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!" 

Harold Sakata's chillingly genial Oddjob works you over with his machine-shop hands, all the while grinning his infuriating grin. The film's climax is set in a fabulous underworld of barred gold (Skyfall for all its exotic locations couldn't top that vision of auric splendor), an atomic weapon ticking away in one corner, Bond standing in another, and--planted in the middle like a parked tank--implacable Oddjob, blocking Bond's way.

All this unfolding at a lean hundred and ten minutes (Skyfall was a distended one hundred and forty): no extraneous fat, no moment of auteurist self-indulgence in sight. 

Goldfinger ends with the threat of atomic Armageddon--what other conclusion is possible, in an age of Mutually Assured Destruction? To be fair Dr. No also threatened nuclear disaster, only reactors don't inspire fear the way bombs do, and looking at the boiling bubbling pool that climaxed that first Bond film one couldn't help think of (it was a low-budget effort) a tricked-out jacuzzi from the swinging '70s. Worse, after this most ultimate of dooms it's difficult to imagine what stakes a Bond supervillain might raise next, or if there were any stakes left one can raise (Thunderball, which followed Goldfinger, employed two nuclear devices--which when you think about it is just the same damned thing, twice). 

One could make the argument that after Goldfinger all succeeding Bond films were redundant; that they could never recapture the same mix of humor, sex, and action; that Bond could never face such impossible odds and beat them with as much invention and stylish flair ever again--and in my book one would be right. Goldfinger far as I'm concerned is the apex of the franchise; everything that followed--no matter how talented the people involved, no matter how many Oscar statuettes floated in their wake--is basically downhill. 

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