Goldfinger is a good example of how to top your previous success without repeating it. If Dr. No and From Russia with Love were an exciting enough package of thrills, then Goldfinger was something else entirely.
It’s a film that I think changed the action film genre forever, and has even had an impact on the visual worlds of science fiction films. Ken Adams’ set design (including the imaginary interior of the gold depository at Fort Knox) is the most obvious blueprint for the look of many later Lucas and Spielberg adventures. Future Bond films would do this kind of epic fantasy espionage bigger, but perhaps not better. With Goldfinger, Saltzman and Broccoli’s screen vision of Fleming’s world had reached near perfection. There were also the beginnings of a formula in place here, which would arguably become tired in later years. It was also the first entry to really showcase an array of exciting gadgets and special effects work. If From Russia with Love had an element of reality, Goldfinger was the first of the Bond science fiction epics.
Of course, having had such an influence since, you’d expect it to have been a big hit. And you’d be right. Thunderball was to top its box office takings a year later, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Goldfinger was a true blockbuster. And it deserved to be.
Goldfinger is a beautiful motion picture for starters. It just looks good from start to finish. We might scoff at the simplicity of Robert Brownjohn’s title graphics, but it’s simplicity that works. They also compare extremely favourably with the work of Maurice Binder, who designed the majority of the Bond title sequences . The golden girls and teasing film projection are inspired. Everything here is so good that film makers have spent nearly 50 years replicating it to one degree or another, especially the EON series itself. The production design, the effects work, the graphics, and the music- they all work together to enhance the whole. It’s clean and effective, with lots of style and verve servicing a captivating tale.
And that’s Goldfinger all over- it has a great story to tell and gets on with telling it. All the things that would later seem to be added to a Bond plot almost out of necessity are here to serve the story. The gadgets are fantastic and the villain’s plot is preposterous, but it’s all part of the package- of telling a great story. Goldfinger’s diabolical plan doesn’t need any dressing up to adorn the big screen, as Fleming’s novel was a bonkers idea to start with. I’m thinking of the difference between Goldfinger and later outlandish epics like You Only Live Twice or Moonraker (both of which bear little resemblance to the novels of the same name).
So for the bonkers plot, EON were wise to chose Fleming’s seventh 007 novel as the third film. It contrasts with the more down to earth espionage of From Russia with Love and does something quite new. Goldfinger is laughably audacious throughout, but Richard Maibaum’s screenplay doesn’t pretend to be anything other than escapist entertainment. It wants us to have fun and be thrilled by the action and the visuals. Bond describes Auric Goldfinger as “mad”, and Gert Frobe plays him with a conceited arrogance that helps us forget how ludicrous his plan is. Because he is the way he is, we believe he’ll actually try what is almost impossible. This makes him one of the series best villains because there is nothing he won’t do to achieve his goal.
Even with 19 other official Bond pictures after it, the plot is still one of the more outlandish. Yet you can believe it’s a great plan if you’re a mad man with the power to do it. Contaminate Fort Knox with radioactivity via a nuclear device, and temporarily knock out everybody in the vicinity with sleeping gas- beat that as a loony plan! And after convincing us that all that can be done so smoothly, we actually end up believing that Sean Connery is in Fort Knox. I expect there are people all around the world who still think the inside of Fort Knox looks like the set in Goldfinger. It’s that convincing. A ‘cathedral of gold’, with bars stacked everywhere and an elevator to access the many levels. I bet the real thing isn’t half as exciting. The climatic race to defuse the bomb, and fend off Goldfinger’s Korean henchman Oddjob, makes full use of the vast vault Bond finds himself trapped in. Actually, this is a prime time to mention how good Harold Sakata is as Oddjob. Not one word of dialogue, but he oozes menace and a subtle brand of black humour. He doesn’t like Bond and wants to kick his arse. He almost gets the opportunity. Adding to the all round excitement is Honor Blackman, fresh from The Avengers TV series. Pussy Galore is one of the most memorable Bond girls, and it helps that she actually gives Bond a run for his money. She’s cool as a cucumber and less prone to drying up (at least when verbal sparring with 007). Her name alone sets a pre-requisite for suggestive character names.
Goldfinger is often called the quintessential Bond film, as all the elements the series is known for were now in place. But it’s also the quintessential ‘60s spy movie and its clones were many. It’s very much a product of the times, with the emphasis on the shock of the new. The whole film is confidant and full of novelty, and I love its stylish sense of fun. Goldfinger features such radical ideas as a laser weapon and the famous re-jigged Aston Martin DB5.The latter is introduced in the first ‘workshop’ scene with gadget creator “Q”. Desmond Llewellyn is wonderful, but I bet you knew that already.
On the down side there is the problem of having one of the reoccurring characters treaded shoddily. Bond’s best friend in the CID, Felix Leiter, returns. Jack Lord (in Dr. No) is replaced by Cec Linder and he doesn’t make much of an impression with me. And for an all time classic Bond film, Bond spends a large portion of the film as a prisoner and there’s very little of the edge of the seat spy activity that defined Russia.
But Sean Connery gets some fantastic lines. “Shocking. Absolutely shocking”, “…I must be dreaming”, “Do you expect me to talk?!” Most of his best lines are coupled with an even better line from the other characters, such as Gold finger’s famous reply of “No, Mister Bond. I expect you to die!” I bet audiences in 1964 didn’t expect that retort.
Guy Hamilton directed Goldfinger, and he was probably the best man to helm this one, although I find myself wondering what the less ireverant Terence Young might have added to the project. Hamilton wanted to have some fun and create an engaging fantasy. The pre-titles sequence starts as he means to go on with a ‘shocking’ fight scene and a dazzling explosion. By the last time Shirley Bassey has finished belting out one of the best theme songs ever, you know that they knew what they were doing with this film.
It was the end of Goldfinger. But after achieving the Midas touch with his one, it was time for EON to turn their hand to making Thunderball.