For an entry in the Bond canon regarded by many as its pinnacle, it is remarkable how significantly Goldfinger strays from what has become the template for the series. But this was still early days and the format that, for better or worse, took hold did so with Thunderball and in its wake.
In Goldfinger, Bond is captured 50 minutes into the story and remains so until the climax. There is one big action set piece (involving the famously Q-gadgeted Aston Martin) prior to this but, like the preceding From Russia with Love, this an escapade that relies mostly on character and plot twists for its forward momentum. Besides a car chase, the most recognisably Bondian feature of the film is the villain, Auric Goldfinger (“Sounds like a French nail varnish”) himself.
Played by German actor Gert Froebe (who would become most identified with this, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and Monte Carlo or Bust) and dubbed by Michael Collins due to his very limited English speaking, Goldfinger is one of the most iconic Bond villains. The Bond villain is so intrinsic to the series but, particularly in recent iterations, has proved very hard to synthesise into a memorable character. Part of Froebe’s appeal is that he brings both physicality (girth) and comic timing. His early encounters with Bond are defined by 007 one-upping him at successive games, to the extent that we regard him as an almost likeable buffoon. When we are later privy to his plans, and their layers, it adds something because, like Bond, we didn’t see it coming (as in the previous film, Bond isn’t up to speed on the villainy but, unlike that one, neither is the audience.).
Director Guy Hamilton (who would return for the final Connery and first two Moores) has perhaps more of an eye for scale than Terence Young, but aided by Peter Hunt the action remains just as punchy when it occurs. Whether or not it’s down to the quality of Richard Maibaum’s script, Hamilton appears to have a sense of just what is needed to make the most of a given scene. This may be part of the reason for the film’s longevity,
Goldfinger establishes the pre-credits sequence as an intentional part of the form of each film (with FRWL, it resulted from Peter Hunt experimenting in the editing room). It also intimates at the increasingly broad humour the series would develop; our first sight of Bond has him in a diver’s costume with a fake seagull attached to his head. He removes this apparel to reveal an immaculate white tuxedo. The audience is invited in on the unlikely scenarios that take place here, for both humourous and dramatic effect; in the ensuing fight that sees an opponent electrocuted in a bath, Bond becomes aware of him by catching sight of his reflection in the eye of the woman he is embracing. A ludicrous idea, but we accept it as a dramatic device. As far as what Bond ‘s mission is concerned (in an unnamed Latin American country), it appears to be in the name of upholding Western imperialist notions of democracy; preventing the financing of revolutions through the distribution of heroin-flavoured bananas.
Bond touches down in Miami, although a good portion of the close-ups consist of the main cast performing against back projection. Bond is at his most cheerfully sexist, slapping the bottom of a girl who has been giving him a back rub. Felix Leiter, meanwhile, played by Cecil Linder, is a big disappointment following Jack Lord. He’s fairly non-descript and wouldn’t look out of place as a deskbound TV detective.
This sequence does a fine job of introducing Goldfinger; we get to laugh as Bond foils his attempt to cheat at cards, but it also puts Bond’s lack of circumspection under the spotlight. He gets Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) killed in the name of a bit of cheap ridicule (of Auric). This in turn will result the demise of Tilly Masterson (Tania Mallet). We’re introduced to the definitive henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata), who would later be parodied by Austin Powers with the character Random Task. Like Dr. No, Oddjob is defined by a physical affliction; he is mute.
Curious that Bond remains alive and free, as he could easily have been snuffed out. Apart from plot expediency there seems little reason for Goldfinger to exercise such restraint. Of course, this would have meant Bond wouldn’t have borne witness to the particularly twisted message of what happens to those who meet with Goldfinger’s disfavour. Thus setting the precedent of the villain behaving in a less than logical manner due to the affliction of rampant ego.
The premise of the film, given the larger than life characters (and character names) populating it, is quite unexceptional; Bond’s mission is to establish how Goldfinger transfers his gold overseas. If it is being done illegally, proceedings can be instituted to recover the bulk of his holdings.
There’s no suggestion of an inkling of his grand plan. It’s just lucky coincidence that the “robbery” of Fort Knox is being scoped out at the same time. The real plan, to render all the gold radioactive (for 58 years) and thus increase the value of Auric’s gold and at the same time play into the hands of the Chinese (who have supplied the scientist and dirty bomb), is creative and comes as a genuine and crafty twist. Despite the use of radioactive materials, the motivation of the villain (by the standards of Bond during that period) is refreshingly lacking in aspirations toward global domination. Goldfinger is a straight-up capitalist, willing ally himself with anyone (or any Super Power) who can increase his wealth. In that sense, he’s the Bond villain who remains most current.
On the debit side in terms of plotting, the scene of Goldfinger revealing his plan to the mob is only there to enable Bond to eavesdrop. If Goldfinger wanted to take out the hoods he owed money he didn’t need to launch into all that exposition before doing it, and he clearly had no intention of letting them live whatever they said in response to the scheme he set out. It’s an aspect that only stands out on repeat viewing, however. Mind you, Goldfinger’s pep-talk sounds like so much baloney, as he instructs that mankind has achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor, “except crime”.
The first glimpse of Q Branch is also the first time we encounter Q’s open disdain for Bond. Wisely, the game of golf with Goldfinger separates the pursuit sequence through the Alps and then onto Auric Enterprises for a bit more auto-gadgeting. The Alps scene, particularly Bond’s self-amused interplay with Tilly Masterson, features sufficiently strong characterisation to make the action become classically memorable. In contrast, while everyone remembers the ejector seat scene, no one knows who was ejected, and the sequence is little more than driving round and round and showcasing each gadget in turn. It’s telling that the best moment features an old lady with a machine gun at the checkpoint, opening fire on a fleeing 007.
The preceding game of golf between Bond and Auric is probably the highlight of the movie (well, that and the iconic laser torture). Both players approach the match in thoroughly unscrupulous fashion, and pleasure of the scene derives from the comic interplay between these characters (along with Hawker, a chucklesome caddy) as the stakes rise. It tends to be a self-defeating task to attempt to replicate inspiration, even when 007 is facing off against a strong actor as the villain (another film series that goes back to one well rather than striking out is Star Trek, eternally referencing The Wrath of Khan as a touchstone), which is why a scene such as this has rarely been equalled.
Another trope mocked by Austin Powers is the villain not killing Bond when he could (or more precisely, leaving the hero to die unobserved). This has already occurred when Bond was in Miami. In this later instance the set-up is so disarmingly (or de-testiclingly) nasty that Goldfinger’s failure to follow through seems forgivable. Spreadeagled on a table, a laser advancing steadily towards his groin, probably the best villain response to a Bond line ever is uttered.
Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Goldfinger: No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die!
Less memorable, but also evidence that the villain is a witty match for 007, is Auric’s concise reply to Bond when the latter can’t resist bragging about eavesdropping.
Bond: I did enjoy our briefing.
Goldfinger: So did I.
As ever with the iconic scenes of the series, they are made what they are because of the chemistry between the actors. An original idea is vital, sparkling dialogue a must, but it is the combination of elements that lends it classic status.
There can’t be very many Bond girls who were older than their leading man, but Honor Blackman (“Pooh-sea” as Connery burrs at her) holds such an honour. I admit to never really taking to her in The Avengers, but there’s no denying her chemistry with Connery. She’s established as a match for him in wittery and (almost) in fighting skills. Absent from the novel is her lesbian background, so it’s left to the viewer to pick up on any traces; while the film does nothing to disinherit such a reading, neither does it overtly invite it at any point. If it had, it might have cemented Bond’s unparalleled sexual charisma as a man who can turn a Sapphic straight but it would also have made the Connery films seem even more antiquated than they do (and not in a nostalgic way).
The relocation to Fort Knox sets up another instance of the filmmakers hoodwinking the audience, but this time it is through the action of the good guys. This sort of narrative sleight of hand should not be underappreciated in the Bond series, as the plots tend to be so linear and lacking in intricacy. We are led to believe that the Delta nerve gas (which is deadly) has wiped out swathes of US military personnel. In fact, this is a ruse to lure Goldfinger et al in order to ensnare them.
It’s unclear why Auric would actually set foot in Fort Knox, as it would have been a mission his minions could have accomplished with relative ease. It does let us see how thoroughly nasty he is face-to-face for the first time, however. He cuts down his nuclear physicist, Mr Ling (Burt Kwouk), with a burst of machine gun fire, which sets him up for the personal retribution of the climax. Here, he confronts Bond (“Are you having lunch at the White House too?”) before being sucked out of the window of the plane they are on., an effectively edited sequence that further establishes the double climaxes the series would frequently use (FRWL had Rosa Klebb doing the same thing)
The countdown to detonation in Fort Know prior to this, as Bond survives his encounter with Oddjob and turns his attention to disarmament, is a barefaced example of cinematic cheating through elongation of time. It takes about 50 seconds from Bond opening up the device to the US military defeating Goldfinger’s men, descending the main staircases to the lower level where 007 is fretting over what to do, and stopping him from making a hash of things just in time (at the count of 007). It’s a conceit that works resoundingly, Hunt confidently stretching out the tension for as long as he possibly can.
In some respects, Goldfinger is rightly regarded as the peak of the series. It marked the early high point of the series; each successive installment proving superior to the last, as well as evidencing a continued willingness to experiment with the Bond format (within certain parameters). Unfortunately, the next outing blew both the budget and the grip on quality.