Goldfinger(1964) is the third film in the James Bond series and the first Bond Blockbuster. Apart from being the film that kicked off the Bond Phenomenon, it’s also a very sleek, sophisticated spy thriller in the spirit of the best in the genre, with Sean Connery giving, what i consider, his most confident, well-rounded performance as Bond.
Dr. No (1962), the first James Bond film, was a big game changer as far as the big action\Adventure movies were considered. The westerns, which was the predominant action genre till then, had started to loose their charm. The audience were hungry for a more urbane and sophisticated action hero befitting the swinging sixties. Though there have been glossy, sophisticated, urbane ,insolent, tongue in cheek crime dramas before; case in point , the Two very popular Hitchcock movies with Cary Grant : To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, It was never formulated into such a heady cocktail of action, spectacle, gorgeous girls and glorious foreign locales the way James Bond films did. Goldfinger, released in 1964, could be considered the representative film of the series and the prototype for the films that followed it well into the new millennium. It is fast paced, humorous, sexy, thrilling and also to an extend logical (that’s as logical bond films could be). It’s also the best looking of the Bond pictures; A perfect mix of the real and the fantastical with Connery at his smoothest, sexiest and most confident. He hadn’t got tired of the role yet – that would come after this film, as the series would come to depend more and more on special effects – and he is fully into his character here. I consider Connery to be a perfect mix of two of the greatest movie stars of all times: Cary Grant and John Wayne. Like Cary Grant, he was smooth, charming, sophisticated and had a way with women and one liners (often tinged with double entendres); and like Wayne, he possessed an earthy masculine sexuality, a larger than life presence, a sense of emotional detachment and a swaggering confidence that helped him navigate the abrupt tonal shifts that was part and parcel of Bond films. The actors who came after him never possessed this mixture of varying elements and so they were all destined to remain in his shadow.
Connery came to Bond as a rather unknown actor. Though he had made some movies before, he was not a famous star. But the success of Dr. No established him as a popular leading man. As Bond, He got one of the most iconic introduction scenes in movie history; where the camera holds back revealing his face for a long time. until he delivers the great line ‘Bond, James Bond‘. Before his face is revealed, the camera fetishes each and every aspect of Connery’s physique and the props he is using; his cigarette case, the lighter, the cards he is dealing on the Baccarat table, etc. In time, this aspect of fetishizing every aspect of Bond and turning them into individual ‘items’ would extend to the whole film, and it perhaps started with “Goldfinger”. From now on, Bond films were no longer about character or plot development or even narrative progression, it would basically be interested in stuffing one spellbinding item after another. The second Bond film, From Russia with Love, is perhaps the best ‘dramatic’ film among the Bond films; with its well constructed plot, well defined characters, narrative arcs and minimal dependence on technology. But it was with Goldfinger that both Bond films and Sean Connery finally came into their own. The film had a new director, Guy Hamilton, instead of Terence Young, who directed the earlier two films and who was the chief architect in molding the rough Scotsman, Connery, into the smooth and suave Bond. Connery himself admitted that Young was his major inspiration for the character of Bond. But it would not be Young, but Hamilton, imparting an insouciant coolness to Fleming’s material, who would make the definite Bond movie that would set the template for the movies to come. Goldfinger had a bigger budget, actually it had more money invested in it than the earlier two films combined, and it was specifically designed to appeal to the American market, with a substantial portion of the film set in Miami and Kentucky. As opposed to the earlier films, where we could see that Connery was just getting a hang of the character, here he gives a fully rounded, super confident performance that goes through the gamut of emotions. He is subtle, fiery, cool, charming, ironic and damn sexy.
As opposed to the more complex plot of From Russia with Love, Goldfinger has a far simple storyline. The emphasis here is on stylish surface effects and detailing and thereby discarding or toning down the layered storytelling of From Russia with Love. First off, we have Bond dressed up to look more slick and glamorous than he ever has been. Then there are the gadgets; Walter PPK, the perfect gun for an agent who is Licensed to Kill; and then the piece de resistance: the new and improved Aston Martin DB-V- with an in built radar system, ammunition and an ejector seat. Then there are the players. This time, Bond has on his side the full MI6 staff, with Bernard Lee‘s M, Lois Maxwell‘s Moneypenny and especially Desmond Llewelyn‘s Q. Q made a brief appearance in the previous film. Here, he gets to do his full routine for the first time in the series; which is showing the most modern gadgets to Bond and admonishing him for joking about his work. We also get the first full view of the Q-branch and the gadgets in development. Then there is the larger than life villain, the titular Goldfinger, in the corpulent figure of Gert Frobe and the voice of Michael Collins – Frobe’s English was pretty terrible so it had to be dubbed. Orson Welles was the first choice for the role, but the producers couldn’t afford him. Goldfinger is a psychopathic megalomaniac who intends to blow up Fort Knox with an atomic device, which will raise the value of his gold by about ten times their current value, and thus enabling him to control the world economy. Always giddily cheerful, with a mischievous grin pasted permanently on his face, Goldfinger is also a petulant man-child, who wants to win any game he’s playing; whether it’s cards, golf or world domination. This combination of widely varying characteristics make Goldfinger the most interesting villain ever to grace the Bond series; and then there are the gorgeous girls with crazy names like Jill (and Till) Masterson, Maei-Li, Pussy Galore, all belonging to Goldfinger, and who are conquered one after another by Bond. Finally, there is the Villain’s superhuman Henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata)- the silent assassin, who never speak a word in this film and who uses his steel-rimmed bowler as a weapon to decapitate his victims. The climatic fight between Bond and Oddjob inside Fort Knox is one of the best hand to hand fight scenes ever seen on screen.
The tongue-in-cheek tone of the film is set right at the beginning; in the pre-credit sequence set in Latin America where Bond is introduced. We first see a duck coming through the water, but it is then revealed that it is a decoy fixed on Bond’s underwater suit. Bond slowly emerges from the water – A scene that James Cameron paid tribute to in his own Bond caper True Lies– and runs into a chemical warehouse were he plants a bomb. Then he takes off his rubber suit and we realize that he was wearing a full, white tuxedo underneath all this time. He goes into a nearby casino and waits as the bomb explodes. After that he goes into a nearby hotel room to see a girl, who is dressed only in a towel. They start to kiss, but in her eyes, Bond notices a guy coming from his behind to attack him. He realizes he has been set up by the girl. Rather than move away, he turns the girl around, putting her in harm’s way of the attacker’s blow. She goes down with a thud and a violent fight ensues that ends with Bond electrocuting the attacker in a bathtub. The scene ends with Bond speaking the cheesy yet cheeky line: “Shocking, Positively shocking‘, with a very amused expression. In its multiple tonal shifts- Humor, spectacle, violence, satire, eroticism- that happen so abruptly, the scene encompasses the film’s style in a nutshell. The biggest success of this film is that it manages to maintain this style throughout. This is something that the following Bond films would be less successful in doing and that explains the immense popularity of Goldfinger over and above other Bond films. Take the scene where Bond first meets Goldfinger: It’s on a golf course, the last place we expect a hero and villain to meet, and their first confrontation is a sort of friendly golf match where Bond beats Goldfinger using his wits, But the aftermath of the scene reveals the brutal, psychopathic side of Goldfinger; as he flaunts OddJob’s murdering skills and warns Bond to keep out of his way. There are several such instances throughout the film; like one moment we see Bond and Jill enjoying themselves in the bed, next moment we see the tragic sight of a dead Jill (Shirley Eaton). Or we get the fancy car chase scene inside Goldfinger’s plant where Bond first puts the Ejector seat to good use to eliminate one of the goons, and the next moment we witness the murder of Jill’s sister Till; and finally, when Bond has saved the world and we feel everything is alright, we see Goldfinger making an appearance; having hijacked the plane that was taking Bond to meet the president of U.S.A; then again, the scene ends with a rather funny moment, when Goldfinger is sucked out of the plane after his revolver fires accidentally, shooting out a window, creating an explosive decompression. Apart from the humor in the scenes, there’s hell of a lot of humor in the dialogues, with veteran Bond screenwriter, Richard Maibaum, making sure that the trademark bond one-liners keep coming one after another so that the proceedings don’t get too serious.
The film is considered to be the first Bond Blockbuster; the film took the series from its more serious, dramatic roots of the novel (and the first two films) and turned it into an overblown comic strip; with its extensive use of gadgets and display of overblown sets and stunts. The film also had (or kick-started) the ‘items’ that will become a common fixture of all subsequent Bond films; like an extensive pre-credits sequence that stood largely apart from the main storyline; multiple foreign locales, and tongue-in-cheek humor. But that doesn’t mean that the film is all fun and games; The film also contains one of the most thrilling, suspenseful dramatic moments, not just as far as Bond films are considered but movies itself: Bond(Sean Connery) has pursued his arch nemesis, gold baron Goldfinger(Gert Fröbe), to his plant in Switzerland where he is planning some hair-brained scheme for world domination. But before he could investigate any further, he is captured by Goldfinger and tied to a cutting table underneath an industrial laser, which begins to slice a large sheet of gold in half, with Bond lying over it. Faced with the prospect of, first, Castration and then eventual death, Bond tries to save himself by misleading Goldfinger about what he knows about Goldfinger’s grand plan called “Operation Grand Slam”. In Actuality, Bond knows nothing about it, it’s just a word that he overheard while spying on Goldfinger. Nevertheless , he lies to Goldfinger that MI6 knows about Grand Slam, causing Goldfinger to spare Bond’s life. This scene is superbly played by the actors and contains some delightful dialogue:
James Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Auric Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!
Auric Goldfinger: There is nothing you can talk to me about that I don’t already know.
James Bond: Well, you’re forgetting one thing. If I fail to report, 008 replaces me.
Auric Goldfinger: I trust he will be more successful.
James Bond: Well, he knows what I know.
Auric Goldfinger: You know nothing, Mr. Bond.
James Bond: Operation Grand Slam, for instance.
Auric Goldfinger: Two words you may have overheard, which cannot have the slightest significance to you or anyone in your organization.
James Bond: Can you afford to take that chance?
Auric Goldfinger: [thinks for a moment, then orders the laser switched off] You are quite right, Mr. Bond. You are worth more to me alive.
The extended dialogue scene is intercut with the scenes of the Laser splicing through the gold getting closer and closer to Bond; if the staging and editing of the scene along with the performances of the actors weren’t brilliant enough, then John Barry’s fantastic score ratchets up the tension to such an unbearable level that when finally it is released, the audience feels as relieved as Bond who has just escaped from death. It’s true that “Goldfinger” set the template for the overblown Bond films of the future, but the fact is that Goldfinger represented the transition – the link between the more modest first two Bonds and the later big-budget extravaganzas – and in the regard it’s a perfect mix of the movies that came before and after it. It does take the gadgetry, the action and spectacle associated with the series to the next level, but it also had some great characters and such intense scenes of well constructed suspense and drama. Another scene worth mentioning comes in the climax, where Bond is struggling to defuse the nuclear bomb, and it is finally stopped at exactly 007. Here also Barry’s great score is used in full force to set the mood. And when you add Shirley Bassey’s iconic title song, this is one of John Barry’s greatest scores for the series.
As good as Sean Connery is in the film, the real star of the film is Production Designer, Ken Adams, who creates some of the most baroque, extravagant and modernist sets for the film. His designs for sets and gadgets gives the film the look of a futuristic Sci-fi film rather than a contemporary spy thriller. The film appears more visually rich than that could be affordable on the moderate $3 million budget. Adams, who worked on Dr. No, but missed out on From Russia with Love as he had to work on Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – brings some of the influences of Kubrick’s classic film here. His designs for the underground lair of Goldfinger and the inside of Fort Knox are awe inspiring. One gets a feeling that some of the scenes were specifically designed to show off his fantastic sets rather than for any dramatic purposes. Take the scene where Goldfinger has assembled the heads of all the Mafia families of America at his Kentucky farm. It’s a scene straight out of some crazy, fantasy movie. Goldfinger pushes some buttons and the walls and floors roll back to reveal hidden structures. Screens descend from the ceiling on which a Film of Fort Knox is shown. From the floor, a vast scale model of the fort rises on hydraulic lifters. Goldfinger tells the mobsters what he plans to do. Then suddenly, the shutters fall and lock the mobsters in the room, and they are immediately killed with poison gas. The scene is laughably absurd. Dramatically, it serves no purpose, except perhaps to show how demented Goldfinger is. But that has already been well established. But what makes the scene work is again the fantastic hardware that Ken Adams has created for the scene. One is so awed by it all that one doesn’t question the absurdity of the proceedings as and when it is happening. Adams, along with the costume designer, also incorporates the primary theme of gold into the set and costume designs of the film. The whole film is drenched in golden color; all of Goldfinger’s costumes are golden or yellow; the only scene in which he’s dressed in military uniform has him holding a golden gun; and of course, who can forget the image of a dead Jill Masterson lying on bed painted with gold. This scene, along with the image of laser cutting through ominously towards Bond are the two most iconic images from the film.
The film set the box office on fire when it was released in 1964 by recouping its three million dollar budget in just two weeks. The demand for the film was so intense that there was round the clock showings in many theaters. It was the first Bond film that was marketed on a mass scale with Tie-ins and merchandise, and as the makers intended, it became an equally thumping success in America as in the rest of the world. The success of the film also ensured a spike in the sales of Fleming’s Bond Novels. There would be a lot of spy films and spoofs of spy films made in the wake of the unprecedented success of Goldfinger. As late as the 1990s, we had Mike Myers’ Austin Powers series- one film in the series is actually titled “Goldmember”– that spoofs every aspect of this film. In a way, Goldfinger finished what was started with Dr. No and was ‘in process’ with From Russia with Love. The Bond Formula was now complete, and rather unfortunately, the Bond films will remain stagnant in this formula for the next four decades. Audiences would become addicted to this formula to such an extend that anytime the producers would deviate from this formula, it would be rejected. It would take about 40 years till the release of Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale that Bond films would successfully leave behind this formula and move in a new direction. In that regard, Goldfinger is both the most innovative film in the series as well as the the point at which the Bond films stopped evolving.