There are certain James Bond movie titles that double as invitations for anyone to do their best impression of the iconic title song. So, I’m sorry but if you say the word “Goldfinger” around me I might just break out into an involuntary “Goooooldfinger!” and – then like any good Shirley Bassey impersonator – I would also have to vocalize the song’s iconic brass line. Sing it with me now: “Wah-waaaah-waaaah.” Oh, come on. You didn’t do it. I know it seems silly, but as Frasier showed us, simply singing “Goldfinger” cheers anyone up:
I would add, however, that simply watching the movie Goldfinger – as I just did for the first time – is also a cure for what ails you. Released in 1964, co-written by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn (an Oscar winner for Seven Days to Noon), and directed by franchise newbie Guy Hamilton, Goldfinger is 110 minutes of pure, joyful cinematic escapism:
There’s a larger-than-life villain with an evil scheme so ingenious it was later repurposed decades later in a Die Hard movie, a formidable henchman and memorable femme fatale, a tricked-out spy car that Batman would be proud to call his own, nasty lasers, before-their-time gadgets (GPS!), iconic witticisms, a ticking clock finale set inside a cavernous Ken Adam set, little old lady firing a big ass machine gun, and – are you ready for this? – a riveting 6-minute golf scene!
Yes, before today I could sing you the “Goldfinger” song and describe Shirley Eaton’s gold covered-body, but there was still much I did not know about the movie. Like, for instance, the fact that Auric Goldfinger (German actor Gert Fröbe dubbed by British TV/stage actor Michael Collins) might just be the first and only Bond villain to definitely cheat at golf. The monster! James Bond must defeat him, not just for the sake of Queen and Country but also the rules of proper decorum.
I tease, but I actually like Goldfinger’s golf scene. (Classics of Golf called it “the best golf scene ever filmed.”) In fact, there’s very little I do not like about this quintessential Bond movie. This is the film all subsequent Bond adventures had to mimic, tweak, and try to top. Most failed. Goldfinger, as Bassey once sang, has the midas touch. How did such apparent perfection come to pass?
“I’ve Got Lots More of This Nonsense” – A New Director Remakes the Franchise
After making two Bond movies in two years – Dr. No in ‘62, From Russia With Love in ‘63 – Eon saw no need to slow down. Both films had been hits in the UK (in fact, From Russia set a new UK box office record), and United Artists was finally feeling optimistic about the chance for James Bond to conquer the States. Goldfinger, adapted from Fleming’s 7th Bond novel, was granted a budget three times larger than Dr. No’s. The third cinematic outing for 007 super spy would indeed prove to be the charm.
Director Terence Young, however, stepped aside, publicly because he wanted to try something else for change (the historical comedy The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders), privately because he had sought and been denied a profit percentage. Guy Hamilton, one of the original choices to direct Dr. No, was hired instead and teamed with screenwriter Richard Maibaum – and later Paul Dehn – to heighten the world of the prior two films, focus more on building up an over-the-top villain, and add more humor.
Hamilton, describing his approach to the opening scene, unknowingly set the tone for decades to come: “If you think it’s funny that a man under a diving suit has a white dinner jacket on and he’s got a carnation in it, or that he can see the villain reflected in the girl’s eyes as he’s about to give her a kiss…If you think that’s funny, good, because I’ve got lots more of this nonsense.”
Yes, Bond’s days of strict spy movie stories like fighting over a stolen encryption device had been short-lived as had his preference for minimizing the quips and gadgets. Everything about Goldfinger was going to be bigger and funnier, yet the actual plot isn’t all that outlandish, at least when compared to the later movies.
After disrupting a drug ring in Latin America, Bond vacations to Miami Beach where he is told to watch Auric Goldfinger, a gold bullion magnate with a thing for cheating at cards and sports. When Bond disrupts Goldfinger’s card hustle, a woman (Jill Masterson, played by Shirley Eaton) ends up dead and covered in gold paint. When Bond out-hustles Goldfinger on the golf course, he dang near ends up dead himself, separately shot at and practically run off the road by a mysterious woman named Tilly (Tania Mallet) who may or may not be connected to everything. So, clearly, Goldfinger? Bit of a sore loser.
Goldfinger is up to far more than cheating at cards, though. Somehow, he’s transporting pounds of gold across international borders undetected. Beyond that gold smuggling operation is something even bigger, something he calls “Operation Grand Slam.” It’s up to Bond to get to the bottom of it. To do so, he’ll have to contend with a taciturn bodyguard with a killer hat (Harold Sakata’s Oddjob) and fierce female pilot (Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore, laugh or roll eyes now) who claims to be immune to his charms.
Oh, also, Pussy Galore has her own squadron of female fighter pilots, but even though they factor into the finale somewhat they never really become full-blown characters. Still, good opportunity to pause and ponder what kind of hassles and confused looks they probably went through to get a sign like “Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus” printed in 1964.
Ian Fleming would have recognized much of his own work in Goldfinger but not all. In the first of what would become an emerging pattern, the screenwriters departed from the book in key areas, particularly in tone. Hamilton’s approach was to hit the kids over the head with so much fun and action in the first 5 minutes that they’d leave their brains under the theater seat and blissfully enjoy the rest of the movie. Maibaum was concerned Bond risked becoming an invincible Superman figure. The story needed him to fail sometimes, but it also needed to make plenty of jokes to lighten the mood.
Fleming would have preferred if they maybe did not do that last part. He told Maibaum with a bemused expression, “The pictures are so much funnier than my books.” Fleming was at that point, sadly, rather ill, and though he did get a chance to visit the Goldfinger set he ultimately passed away a little more than a month before its release. That means Fleming died right before his little baby exploded into a worldwide phenomenon.
Goldfinger smashed box office records around the world, from Taiwan to Mobile, Alabama, making back its entire production budget in just two weeks of play. According to the Guinness Book of Records, no movie had ever made that much money that fast. In a pattern which later repeated itself with a lightning-in-a-bottle blockbuster like Jaws (1975), the world was instantly flooded with an avalanche of unofficial toys, merchandise, records, and magazine covers. The James Bond franchise would soon be represented on the covers of both Playboy and Life Magazine, seemingly accepted by all corners of society.
Even Oddjob eventually got his own Vicks commercial:
Shirley Eaton, who is only in Goldfinger for 5 minutes, toured major American cities to promote the film. (Remember this was back when movies didn’t open everywhere at the same time.) When Sean Connery attended the Paris premiere driving the Aston Martin down the Champs-Élysées, a female fan dove through the open window to get a closer look at James Bond. She likely looked up to see a very human and very irate Scotsman.
A Human James Bond
The James Bond of Goldfinger, however, is also surprisingly human, at least more human than he would later become. The callousness of later Connery performances or wry detachment/invulnerability of the Roger Moore version would feel out of place here. By contrast, Goldfinger’s Bond is someone who actually gets upset when the latest woman in his life dies. Even though he has the OG Batmobile in the form of the Aston Martin DB5 (making its Bond debut), he eventually reaches the end of the road and fails to save the girl. When he ends up strapped to a table with a gold laser pointed at his twig and berries, it’s not a gadget or quick punch that spares his life. Instead, he talks his way out of it.
Connery would later complain of his most famous role, “From an actor’s point of view, Bond presented terrible problems. He has no mother. He has no father. He doesn’t come from anywhere. He hasn’t been anywhere before he became 007. He was born 33 years old.” Indeed, Bond movies are often only as good as their villains because pre-Daniel Craig 007 simply isn’t a character who grows and can claim to have much of a background.
Knowing all of that actually lends Goldfinger a little more weight. Connery, though clearly recognizing the silliness of the story at times, is still actually trying to play 007 as a person at this point. When he first glimpses Tilly waving his way, he resists the urge to chase after the pretty girl, telling himself aloud, “Discipline, James. Discipline.” A bit of self-parody? Or the briefest of glimpses that this character might actually be self-aware?
This is also, however, the movie where Bond ends up strapped to a table straight out of a Dick Sprang Batman comic book panel. Part of Goldfinger‘s brilliance is the way it mixes the action with humor and surprise, giving us a James Bond who does repeatedly fail. But Guy Hamilton said everything in Goldfinger is meant to be taken “with a wonderful pinch of salt.” We’re not supposed to take any of it seriously, but it’s nice that Connery was still trying at this point.
Is that enough to forgive the film’s Achilles heel?
Why Not Just Kill Him?
Goldfinger is one half spy movie, one half the villain holds Bond hostage just to gloat for an hour. At one point, Bond has broken out and been recaptured enough times that a small army glares while standing guard as he sits patiently with his arms crossed. It’s a hilarious bit but also one that recognizes the preposterousness that Goldfinger hasn’t simply killed this guy yet.
The charitable reading is the film isn’t a spy movie at all but instead a series of duels. Bond wins the first two (cards, golf), but for Goldfinger to really win the third he needs Bond to fully understand what Operation Grand Slam is. Only then can he die. Sure, he might fear that Bond really has alerted the CIA to the truth of Operation Grand Slam, but, mostly, he just wants to see his face when he knows he’s lost.
In truth, this is such an action movie trope now that I barely even notice, and if Gert Fröbe and Sean Connery want to sit down to some mint julips and discuss the finer points of gold heists I choose to enjoy the back and forth.
With Goldfinger, Guy Hamilton tweaked the Bond formula to take you to wonderful places, show you beautiful girls, have some suspense, some laughs, and offer pure enjoyment. He was blessed with a script that has the franchise’s best villain and henchman, most memorable gadget, a bar-setting opener, and an unforgettable image (the golden woman). Plus, thanks to Shirley Bassey’s impressive lungs, I can’t stop singing, “Goooooldfinger!”
Thoughts on the Bond Women: Iconic gold-covered death and all, Shirley Eaton is still only in the film for all of five minutes, and Tania Mallet doesn’t fare much better in terms of screen time. It is thus Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore who truly does the film’s heavy lifting in the Bond girl department.
Since she knew judo from her time on The Avengers and was actually two years older than Connery, Blackman convincingly works as both his physical match and more age-appropriate-than-usual love interest. The hiccup, however, is the Pussy Galore of the novel is a lesbian while the version in the film is coded as lesbian (“I’m more the outdoors type”/ “Your charms won’t work on me”) but never outright stated as such. Still, there’s enough there that to lend some discomfort to his forceful kiss that breaks down all of her romantic barriers.
Even without any lesbian subtext, however, I’ve never really warmed to the Golden Age Hollywood trope of “let’s fight a little, then I’ll kiss you like Rhett Butler, and you’ll fight me and slap my back to get me to stop until my kiss overwhelms you with passion.” This persisted up to and well beyond Goldfinger. A similar scene plays out with Harrison Ford and Sean Young in Blade Runner. In this case, it’s certainly not enough to ruin the movie or Honor Blackman’s memorable performance for me, and the way Blackman told it, the chemistry was quite real, “There’s no question there was a great attraction between the two of us. I was married at the time so I had to rein in my horses.”
Ian Fleming Connection: The plot of the film is basically the same as the 1959 Fleming novel but more outlandish in some ways and well thought out in others. The novel, for example, involves Goldfinger – a name Fleming stole from a famous architect he happened to loathe – attempting to rob Fort Knox by poisoning the nearby water supply to kill all of the employees. Fleming, however, never bothered to account for how Goldfinger would actually transport all of that gold out of Kentucky. That forced Maibaum to dream up a different ending. Similarly, Fleming merely described the death-by-gold-paint scenario; the screenwriters are the ones who had Bond actually discover Jill Masterson in that sorry state.
Bond Song Thoughts: As with a lot of the Bond songs, they actually had multiple artists record versions of “Goldfinger” before settling on the Shirley Bassey take in the film. Even then, the producers still wanted to try something else and would have if the release date hadn’t forced a final decision on them.
Coolest Scene: Rather than spy gadget or brute force his way out of death, Bond manages to stare down a golden laser threatening castration and somehow talk his way out of it.
Favorite Line: Bond: “Do you expect me to talk?” / Goldfinger: “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”
Biggest regret: That Tilly disappears from the film almost as quickly as she enters it.
Little Known Fact: Shirley Eaton had her own unique way of punishing any bastard who tried to sneak a peak on her “nude” scene:
It was a closed set. Sean told Graham [the actor Graham Stark, who just shooting Guns at Batasi on a neighboring Pinewood set] and he poked his head around the make-up room. He had a pure, beautiful white immaculate naval uniform and, because he was cheeky, I went up and hugged him [covering him gold paint]
For reference, here’s Graham Stark (on the left) in Guns at Batasi:
Box Office: $124.9m worldwide/$1.034 billion inflation-adjusted, a nearly 60% jump over From Russia With Love ($78.9m worldwide/$669.5m inflation-adjusted)
Sources: Nobody Does it Better, The Ultimate Guide to Bond, Some Kind of Hero
TOMORROW: From Russia With Love