It’s still not Sean in the opening gun barrel sequence but pretty much everything else which makes a Bond movie a Bond movie crystallises here, setting a template and a benchmark which the series would follow for the next forty years.
For the first time, Bond appears in the pre-credits teaser and what a teaser it is. Brash, tongue in cheek and effortlessly cool. The wrinkle-free tuxedo under the scuba gear is patently ridiculous but it’s sold with such conviction that you just go with it, and from that moment “Goldfinger” has you. The seductive dancing girl and the nameless thug dispatched with a bath, an electric fan and a bad pun are just icing on the cake. The mission has little to do with the rest of the film, beyond helpfully placing Bond in Miami, and it’s the first time we get a real sense that Bond is a veteran operative with dozens of successful missions under his belt, deserving of the reputation he’s enjoyed in the previous films.
Bond is assigned to investigate international bullion dealer Auric Goldfinger (those were some prescient parents), whose activities have attracted the attention of the Treasury and The Bank Of England. Bond uncovers a plan to collude with the Chinese Government to irradiate Fort Knox, vastly increasing the value of Goldfinger’s personal gold reserve and destabilise the American economy.
Of course, this is the Bond movie which cemented the tradition of having the specially composed theme song sung over the opening credits. Maurice Binder hadn’t yet returned to the fold so instead of the silhouettes, we have a continuation of the projection techniques used in “From Russia With Love”, only this time it’s scenes from the movie we’re about to see projected on the gilded body of Margaret Nolan (who also has a cameo as Dink, Bond’s masseuse). John Barry’s brassy composition is belted out by Shirley Bassey (who would go on to become the only artist to sing more than one Bond theme) in a recording which almost caused her to pass out holding the end note.
Compared to the stiffness of “Dr. No” and the dark and brooding “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger” is a complete contrast. Lighter in tone and touch, incoming director Guy Hamilton favours adventure over intrigue and moves Bond firmly away from deliberate, careful spycraft to wholesale action. The opening scenes of the movie serve to underline this new maverick edge to Bond as he takes a routine surveillance assignment and uses it as an opportunity to act as an agent provocateur, goading Goldfinger as he cheats at cards in an anonymous Miami resort.
Unfortunately this newly impish attitude doesn’t work out so well for Jill Masterson who receives the movie’s iconic (and improbably fatal) paint job. It’s kind of weird that Goldfinger sends Oddjob to kill Jill Masterson yet only has Bond knocked out. Why not kill them both and be done with it?
It’s the first sign that things have changed: the plot is looser, more a connected series of set pieces and set-ups than the tight narratives of its predecessors. Bond has relaxed and is ready to have a little fun. Flashiness and style have replaced substance and while the world may have lost a hard edged secret service agent, it’s gained a glamourous, wry super-spy in his stead.
Having tweaked the formula in the previous two films, the makers got the recipe just right, and chose possibly the perfect story to premiere their new style adventure movie. Instead of the arcane satellite toppling of the first film or the worthy but dull decoding machine of the second, here we have a universally recognised symbol of power, wealth and beauty at the heart of the story: gold. Add to the mix a European-accented villain who’s obsessed with the substance and a contrived but straightforward plot involving one of the most recognisable buildings (at least by name) in the world, Fort Knox, and you’ve got yourself an exciting, shiny movie that everyone can get behind.
Adding to the sense of fun and excitement is the first ever Q branch montage culminating in what, despite better and cleverer vehicles coming after it, became the definitive Bond car, the Aston Martin DB5. Although Aston Martin were reluctant to supply cars to the production and the producers had to actually buy two DB5s to use, it was the last time the production ever had to spend money on an Aston Martin (or any other car). While “Goldfinger” ramps up the glamour, it’s easily one of the least exotic Bond movies, despite taking in South America, the United States and Switzerland. Much of the film takes place in Kentucky, established by dusty shots of freeways and the yellowing lawns of Fort Knox while Switzerland’s one scene is of a winding mountain road. Virtually everything of any import – with the exception of the golf game – occurs indoors on sets and it comes as no surprise to learn that Sean Connery never set foot in America during the production of this film. Luckily the sets are fantastic, from the laser cutting laboratory to Goldfinger’s impressive presentation suite and, of course, the amazing Fort Knox vault. Production designer Ken Adam outdoes himself on his return to the Bond production team.
Generally, Bond movies are at their best when they visit places and countries not often scene in mainstream Hollywood movies, which is why he never seems comfortable or convincing in adventures which are heavily America-based. One of his strongest appeals is the quirky Britishness of the character and it feels wasteful to send our best agent to a country which is overflowing with rugged, capable action heroes of its own. But it’s a minor gripe with “Goldfinger” thanks to the terrific performances and some timelessly quotable dialogue, with Goldfinger himself getting possibly the best line of the entire movie with “No, Mr Bond – I expect you to die!”
Unfortunately, the producers’ continuing obsession with dubbing shows no signs of abating which means there’s a fair few performances where the vocals don’t quite match the physical performances. Most of Gert Fröbe’s dialogue was overdubbed by an uncredited Michael Collins but at least he got his own back by doing the German dub himself. He makes for an impressively, almost avuncular villain in this and freed from any overt connection to the ongoing SPECTRE storyline, acts in a deliciously unilateral way to further his own avaricious ends. Joining the increased humour, action and glamour is a conspicuous increase in the number of Bond girls, with both Masterson sisters joining the unfeasibly named Pussy Galore as Bond’s companions and love interests. Unfortunately, Bond’s newfound bravado doesn’t play out well for either Masterson sister. Connery’s Bond is at the height of his powers here, and Honor Blackman’s experience of secret agent capers from “The Avengers” serves her well here as she sparks off Bond’s easy-going charms.
The fight choreography continues to improve here, and the added sense of fun increases the entertainment. There are still points where you can see the makers chafing against the limitations of the filmmaking techniques and technology available at the time, especially when it comes to action sequences involving vehicles. The chase through Goldfinger’s Swiss facility in the Aston Martin is exciting and innovative, thanks to the use of some (not all) of the gadgetry listed during its introduction but there’s still a lot of speeded up footage which looks unconvincing and the chase scene ends terribly as Bond is fooled into swerving to avoid…his own reflection in a mirror. And while we’re on the subject of the Aston Martin, Q says it has bulletproof windows (a point I’ll return to in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) so why is there a need for a steel screen to block bullets at the back of the car?
It speaks to the strength of “Goldfinger” that the main criticisms are merely nit-picking at small inconsistencies and continuity errors (such as Bond’s scar on his back – which was significant enough to be a plot point in “From Russia With Love” being conspicuously absent during his massage by Dink). Yes, Bond had become a little bit glibber and maybe even a teensy bit sillier but it had also become a lavish, sexy, action-packed entertainment juggernaut. Bondmania had arrived and the world of action movies would never be the same again. The man with the Midas touch indeed.
Craggus’ Bond Voyage will return in “Thunderball”…