I was at a birthday party many, many moons ago when the kid’s parents stuck a tape in their VCR and unveiled Goldfinger. It was the first James Bond movie I’d ever seen, and where the rest of the kids were more eager to play with newly acquired Transformers and G.I. Joes, I was glued to the screen as unforgettable images reeled across my retinas: Sean Connery in his prime. The silent henchman with the steel-brimmed bowler hat. The amazing Aston Martin DB5. The near-castration by laser beam. “Operation Grand Slam.” Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus. And the girl covered in paint… gold paint. A revelation to a kid whose usual cinematic fare up until that point had been parent-approved rereleases of old Disney movies.
I’m biased towards liking Goldfinger more simply because it was my first, and because it kicked off years of bonding – pun totally intended – with my dad as he brought home a new 007 adventure from the video store every Friday night for us to watch together, or made a point to rearrange his calendar so we could stay up late when they were shown on television. But even as a now embittered, cynical adult (he jested), Goldfinger is still an amazing ride. Connery owns the role here the way he never would again, as in later films he is increasingly, and visibly, bored with becoming something of a prop in ever more elaborate set pieces. But here he is smooth and unflappable; long gone is the eager 30-year-old Scot in his first big break barking dialogue at a machine-gun clip. He is the epitome of Bond, fusing his own irreplaceable appeal with Fleming’s words and Savile Row tailoring to become that mythic apex of 60’s masculinity – anachronistic putdowns of the Beatles aside.
Sir Sean is matched effectively by German actor Gert Frobe as the bullion-obsessed Auric Goldfinger (“Sounds like a French nail varnish”), the first of many Bond villains to be obsessed with a particular commodity. Goldfinger is larger than life, but never unbelievable – indeed, in a modern context he doesn’t seem that far removed from the likes of the Koch brothers. He and Bond share a grudging respect, and Goldfinger’s choice to keep him alive through the second half of the film stems much from Goldfinger’s desire to defeat him socially – a wish shared by many villains that follow, and the source of many (easily escapable?) elaborate death traps. And one would be remiss to leave out the junior member of the film’s evil duo – Harold Sakata as the legendary Oddjob. Oddjob never speaks, but Sakata manages to inject a sinister form of charm into the part as he maintains a fastidiously tidy appearance even while committing the most savage of murders. Another highlight is Desmond Llewelyn, in the second of his appearances as Q, beginning to flesh out the part by turning the eager-to-please armorer from From Russia with Love into a curmudgeonly public servant beleaguered by Bond’s continual disdain towards his precious equipment. The “Q scene” would become a staple of the films from here on out, with Llewelyn remaining in the role until his tragic death in a traffic accident following the release of The World is Not Enough.
Third film, so naturally, three different Bond girls! Shirley Eaton is sexy in various states of undress (black bikini, men’s dress shirt and finally nothing but gold paint and a strategically placed pillow) as Jill Masterson, Tania Mallet is sweet but equally short-lived as her vengeful sister Tilly, and Honor Blackman as the infamously-named Pussy Galore (almost called Kitty Galore for fear of the censors) does a good job of giving 007 as good as she gets until she finally succumbs to him – and who wouldn’t, of course. Fleming’s portrayal of Pussy Galore in the book was rooted in embarrassing old school machismo, referring to her as a capital-L lesbian throughout, but the movie jettisons any such clumsily executed questions of gender identity. The focus is adventure, not what a crusty old English sod thought of women he couldn’t charm.
John Barry is in top form here, building on what he began in the previous movie. The brass section cuts loose here in what comes off as spy meets boogie-woogie, particularly in the famous title song belted out at eleven by Shirley Bassey in her introduction to the world of Bond. One standout in the score is the haunting, finger-curling marimba piece that plays as the laser draws ever closer to 007’s waist, ratcheting up the suspense to unbearable levels. Ken Adam and his production design team also kick things up a notch, with his imaginative set for the interior of Fort Knox (they weren’t allowed inside for reasons of security and had to guess at what it looked like) providing a visually sumptuous setting for the movie’s final showdown.
Still, none of this workmanship would matter if the screenplay wasn’t there, and writers Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn provide the perfect blueprint on which to build. Goldfinger is the Bond movie with all the best lines, bar none: “Do you expect me to talk? No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” “Ejector seat, you’re joking. I never joke about my work, 007.” “Choose your next witticism carefully, it may be your last.” And so on, with the focus of the dialogue less on exposition and more on playful banter, almost like a comedy of manners playing out against the backdrop of a threat to the economy of the entire world. In a sign that adherence to the Fleming works was becoming less important as the series gained in popularity, precious few of these lines came from the book. Indeed, Goldfinger was the last Bond movie produced while Ian Fleming was alive. Stress and hard living finally took its toll on the author, who passed away in August 1964 just before the movie was released. The script does correct an outright miscalculation by Fleming by changing Goldfinger’s plot from robbing Fort Knox (Bond points out it would take twelve days) to irradiating it with an atomic bomb borrowed from China, heightening the stakes and adding in that critical ticking clock – which Bond is able to stop with 007 seconds left. Leaving Fleming behind would prove to be a controversial choice as the series wore on, with the producers finding time and again that the further they strayed, the less audiences were amused. But more on that another day.
From start to finish, Goldfinger is a feast for the Bond fan, with every element firing on all cylinders. It set a standard that the twenty films to follow would often struggle to meet, and some might argue never have.