Still the greatest Bond of them all? Oscar revisits Sean Connery’s third outing as 007.
Who made it?: Guy Hamilton (Director), Richard Maibaum, Paul Dehn (Writers), Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman (Producers), Eon Productions.
Who’s in it?: Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Fröbe, Shirley Eaton, Tania Mallet, Harold Sakata, Bernard Lee.
Tagline: “James Bond 007 Back In Action!”
IMDb rating: 7.8/10.
Goldfinger is one of two classic James Bond films that are regarded as Sean Connery’s best cinematic outings, the other being From Russia with Love. I regard it as both a noteworthy cornerstone in the franchise’s history and as a rock solid outing for 007. Looking at it now, it does have some problems that take me out of the moment occasionally, but they don’t shatter my overall enjoyment.
After destroying a drug laboratory in Latin America, Bond travels to Miami Beach to receive instructions from his superior, M (Bernard Lee), via CIA agent Felix Leiter (Cec Linder). He is to observe bullion dealer Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) at the hotel there. Bond sees Goldfinger cheating at gin rummy and stops him by distracting his employee, Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), and blackmailing Goldfinger into losing. After Bond and Jill consummate their new relationship, Bond is knocked out by Goldfinger’s Korean manservant, the hulking giant Oddjob (Harold Sakata). When Bond awakens, he finds Jill dead, covered in gold paint, having died from “skin suffocation.”
In London, the chancellor of the exchequer and M task Bond with learning how Goldfinger smuggles gold internationally. Bond arranges to meet him socially at his country club in Kent, and wins a high-stakes golf game against him by dropping a recovered Nazi gold bar in front of Goldfinger, making him nervous. Bond follows him to Switzerland, where Tilly (Tania Mallet), Jill’s sister, makes an unsuccessful assassination attempt. Bond sneaks into Goldfinger’s plant and discovers he smuggles gold by melting it down and incorporating it into the bodywork of his car, which he takes with him whenever he travels, and overhears the name of his plan: “Operation: Grand Slam.”
Connery is on top form here; he’s an unequivocal badass as usual, but he really delivers on the charm and wit that other Bond actors have tried to replicate. His distinctive accent and way of talking is dialled back enough so that you can believe his Bond is distinct from himself. While not the most wide-ranged of actresses, Blackman lends herself very well to the seductive and sly Pussy Galore, believably pulling off being attracted to Bond whilst being an efficient adversary. Blackman and Connery have terrific chemistry, and fit together better than any pairing in the first five years of the franchise. Fröbe is a delight as the titular villain, with his sly smile and self-assured confidence to rival Connery’s; you get a real sense that he is in charge of every situation, and there’s always a Plan B. Sakata is right on the ball as the intimidating Oddjob, even in the way he smiles creeps me out. Eaton is voluptuous and charming as Jill Masterson, and Mallet has much of the same charm if somewhat of a harder resolve as Tilly. Both of these fine ladies could have been great Bond Girls in their own right had they the chance to appear separately. Lee’s M is a dependable leadership figure and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny has her expected scene of snappy banter with 007. Desmond Llewelyn as Q is enjoyably snarky and acerbic, and his introductory scene with the gadgets on display sets the tone for the Bond/Q relationship very well.
Although typical to describe many of the best Bond films, the direction by Guy Hamilton is slick and classy, breezing through a fairly dense plot at a good pace, and you get treated to all the classic Bond-isms – the beautiful women who throw themselves at him (and those who resist), his working relationships, stylish establishments flowing with drink, and tastefully-written and delivered pre-mortem one-liners. It should be said, those who feel a twinge of discomfort over Bond’s chauvinism and the very 60s depiction of women in spy films should brace themselves. This is very much entrenched in Bond’s character, and if anything, the film dials these elements back from how strongly they were presented in the book. The one part where the misogyny did get too close for comfort for me was in the famous scene in the barn, in which Bond all but forces Pussy to change her orientation.
At 111 minutes – the same running time as Dr. No - it moves along at a brisk pace and yet packs a lot of action, story and imagery into that relatively lean time. The set work by Ken Adams is solid and faithfully recreates the inside of Fort Knox, as well as giving a lush 60s flair to such locations as the Miami Beach hotel. While you do inevitably get some outdated optical effects, the rear-projection in the cars almost never looks right, as well as cross-cutting between sets and location shoots that don’t gel very well together. That’s just part of the charm of the era, though.
The various chase scenes are shot and edited to high standards of the time and still retain suspense and a sense of believability even to this day. The action scenes are well-staged and vary from high on thrills and whizz-bang fun to suspenseful sequences that leave you on the edge of your seat. In addition to the many car chases, the thrilling aerial assault on Fort Knox and the synchronised collapsing of the American garrison is another very well-staged moment. The iconic laser scene is notably dark in both cinematography and tone; Connery sells the barely-contained fear and sweating in contrast to Goldfinger’s jocular mood and delight in Bond’s demise. Bond’s fight with Oddjob is complemented by its grand Fort Knox setting reminiscent of a gladiatorial arena, smoother editing and a lack of background noise besides the meaty punching noises and that ticking clock, allowing us to focus on the two fighters.
John Barry’s score is another strong one, with an ominous and charismatic main theme for Goldfinger, and the romantic, playful aspects of the film are represented in the theme for Pussy Galore. For me personally, I really enjoy the “Goldfinger” song by Shirley Bassey with its strong, brassy saxophones, trumpets and spirited singing. The lyrics, while repetitive, are still catchy and memorable, often being used during the score’s action beats.
In this film more than others, Bond serves more as the audience point-of-view character and doesn’t undergo sweeping amounts of character development. He is more a catalyst to the actions of characters around him. His motivation for wanting to stop Goldfinger is reasonable if just a touch selfish, wanting to get revenge on the man who pulled the rug out from under him while he was with Jill, whose manner of death was further salt in the wound after allowing his guard to slip.
The film never allows you to feel comfortable for too long; when things seem to be going well for Bond, he gets dealt another cruel hand, and it keeps expectations on edge. This succession of curveballs and the swinging of the odds in and out of 007’s favour keeps the plot interesting. Something that gives great character to these earlier films is the interplay between the two foes. The scenes with Bond and Goldfinger are excellent, as there is a certain amount of respect for each other’s intellect, and each man calmly and cooly attempts to undermine and outmaneuver the other. For long stretches of the film, Bond’s free agency is largely limited which means he has to get more creative in how he conducts his mission under the close watch of Goldfinger and his agents.
Despite these definite strengths, there are some weak scenes. The scene where Goldfinger explains Operation: Grand Slam to the US mafia comes off as a heavy exposition dump and doesn’t hold up on repeat viewings since his plan was always to kill them. Yes, it fits his character to a tee, but it slows the pacing down in an otherwise well-paced film. After one of them backs out, Goldfinger kills him in an elaborate assassination attempt, despite having quickly and efficiently gassed the other crime bosses. The lengthy execution and subsequent car crushing takes five minutes and nothing is really accomplished. To a matured eye, I suppose it’s a case of just because you can show an elaborate sequence that exists for its own sake, doesn’t mean you should!
The interplay between Bond and Galore is one of the more dynamic Bond/Bond Girl relationships, with Pussy being one of the first ladies to be on the opposing side before 007 deploys his usual charms to bumpy but often successful effect. Also, when Bond has his scene with Galore in the barn, it feels very rushed. While it’s par for the course as far as Bond goes in terms of swaying an enemy agent, there is little to no build up towards it apart from Ms Galore wanting to betray her boss.
Goldfinger is a film that thrives on many fundamental absurdities, from its improbably charming hero to its grandiose villain. While modern tastes may favour the modern classic Casino Royale, and rightly so as well, it’s this film we have to thank for continuing to help the franchise grow from strength to strength in the 60s. It tailored all the now-archetypal spy thriller tropes to such a level of steady-handed finesse that it has aged better than many of its contemporaries.
“Do you expect me to talk?”
- The movie was the fastest grossing picture in film history when it was released and was entered into the Guiness Book of World Records.
- The recreation of the Fort Knox repository at Pinewood Studios was incredibly accurate considering no one involved in the film had been allowed inside the real location for security reasons. The set looked so real that a 24-hour guard was placed on the Fort Knox set at Pinewood Studios so that pilferers would not steal the gold bar props. A letter to the production from the Fort Knox Controller congratulated Ken Adam and his team on the recreation. Auric Goldfinger’s 3-D Model Map used for his Operation Grandslam is now housed as a permanent exhibition at the real Fort Knox.
- When Shirley Bassey recorded the theme song, she was singing as the opening credits were running on a screen in front of her, so that she could match the vocals. When she hit her final high note, the titles kept running, and she was forced to hold the note, until she almost passed out.
- Gert Fröbe spoke very little English, so Michael Collins dubbed his voice. Director Guy Hamilton instructed Fröbe to speak his lines (in German) quickly which would assist the dubbing. Reportedly though, Fröbe was speaking English in a few scenes which reduces the awareness of the dubbing. In the film’s trailer, Fröbe’s own heavily accented voice is heard when Goldfinger tells James, “Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond, it may be your last.” Fröbe dubbed his own voice in the German dubbed version of the film, too.
- Super fan Steven Spielberg cites this as his personal favorite of all the Bond movies and even owns an Aston Martin DB5 due to the impact Goldfinger had on him.