Countdown to Spectre: Goldfinger Revisited

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The Bond: Sean Connery again, who had become so famous that he had three films released in 1964 (Woman of Straw and Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie being the other two).

The Release: September 18, 1964 in the UK and January 9, 1965 in the US. Producers Broccoli and Saltzman decided to adapt Ian Fleming’s American-set 7th novel in hopes of courting US and it paid off: Goldfinger grossed twice as much as its predecessor. It also did well internationally, replacing From Russia with Love as the highest grossing film in British history.

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The Girl: This might be the most women ever packed into a single Bond film. There’s Nadja Regin as a treacherous moll in the opening scene. There’s Shirley Eaton as Jill Masterson, whose death gives the franchise one of its most iconic images: a girl covered in gold sprawled naked on a bed. Then there’s Tania Mallet as her sister Tilly, who wants to kill Goldfinger in revenge. But they all pale in comparison to Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore. Blackman was coming off a very successful stint as Catherine Gale on the popular British television show The Avengers and she was asked to do the film partly because she had learned judo for the show. Perhaps it’s because Galore is a highly skilled criminal instead of essentially an innocent damsel in distress or maybe it’s just because Blackman is the first Bond girl who didn’t need to be dubbed, but Pussy’s confident swagger equaled if not outmatched Bond’s and she redefined what made a good Bond girl.

The Villain: Gert Fröbe as the titular Auric Goldfinger. Fröbe didn’t speak English, so his scenes were dubbed by actor Michael Collins, who deserves equal credit for why Goldfinger makes such a great Bond villain. Half of what makes the character’s response to Bond’s “Do you expect me to talk?” is the way Collins reads the line, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” Still, without Fröbe’s imposing physique and the hint of insanity he occasionally lets seep into the character’s expression, the villain wouldn’t work.

The Gadgets: From Russia with Love started the trend of Q introducing all of the gadgets at the beginning, but Goldfinger perfects it. Here, they’re all inside the series’ first Aston Martin, a DB5. While the homing beacons appear throughout, the car mostly shows off its features during two car chases at Goldfinger’s compound. The bulletproof shield, smoke screen, oil slick and machine gun are pretty cool, but it’s the passenger ejector seat that everyone’s waiting to see Bond use. And watching Goldfinger’s henchmen fly out of the car is one of the movie’s best images, even if they obviously use a dummy. Sadly, not all the features appear onscreen. Though tire spikes that fall out of the taillights are kind of redundant when there’s a retractable lance to do the same job.

The Song: “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey, which went as high as #8 on the US singles chart. This is her first contribution to the franchise and it set the standard and tone for everything that came after. For the first time, the instrumentation and melody take a back seat to the vocals as Bassey belts every word. This is the first signature song to play over the opening credits and graphic designer Robert Brownjohn’s work perfectly complements it. Foreshadowing Jill’s death, the text and images from this and the previous Bond films are projected over a gold-painted female body (actress Margaret Nolan, who appears in the film as Bond’s masseuse in Miami).

The Book: It’s a testament to screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn’s skill that they turned the longest Bond novel into one of the shorter films in the franchise—even with an all-new opening scene. The changes they make mostly serve to make the story more logical and streamlined.

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In the book, one of Bond’s fellow gamblers from Casino Royale puts him on Goldfinger’s trail, but since that story didn’t exist in the film universe yet, M gives him the assignment via CIA agent Felix Leiter (played by Cec Linder in the character’s second appearance) and the film jumps right into the case. They also remove the preposterous idea that Goldfinger–despite working for SMERSH–doesn’t realize Bond is a spy until after he sabotages Operation Grand Slam. In the film, thanks to his Chinese backers, Goldfinger is aware Bond is a threat pretty much right away and pins Jill’s death on Bond to get him out of the picture. Goldfinger’s villainous plot is also slightly more plausible, if still outlandish. As Bond points out in the movie, stealing the contents of Fort Knox, even a small amount, would be impossible to do quickly. So, Maibaum and Dehn circumvent that issue by changing Goldfinger’s plan to rendering America’s gold supply radioactive by detonating a nuclear bomb inside Fort Knox.

However, not every change works. While Fleming provides a pretty thin explanation for why Goldfinger doesn’t kill Bond once he catches him snooping (something about not wanting to destroy an example of human excellence and needing a secretary), the film’s is even thinner. Bond warns that he told his superiors about Goldfinger’s plan, and while it keeps him alive, nothing changes in the plan. It makes even less sense that Goldfinger would reveal the details of Operation Grand Slam to a bunch of gangsters he planned to kill anyway. The scene only exists so Bond can spy on it. But this is a universe where a woman’s name is Pussy Galore, realism isn’t the point.

Speaking of Ms. Galore, the novel is pretty explicit that she and Tilly are lesbians, but the closest Pussy gets to coming out here is when she says to Bond, “You can turn off the charm, I’m immune.” However, surprisingly, the changes to Pussy mostly make her a better character. Not only is she the first Bond Girl with a skill (she’s the lead in a team of lesbian pilots here instead of the head of a failing lesbian gang), she actually saves the day. Instead of relying on a completely unbelievable plot where Bond tapes a note to the underside of an airplane toilet seat, she warns the American government about Goldfinger’s plan. Sure, it’s implied that she only does it because Bond had sex with her, but at least we never hear her justify it by saying Bond is the first “real” mans she’s ever met like in the book.

The Movie: Goldfinger is often considered the best film in the franchise and I won’t disagree. It has the perfect amount of humor, intrigue and excitement.

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Much of that is thanks to director Guy Hamilton, who took over when series veteran Terrence Young left during pre-production to make The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders. Hamilton believed Bond was only as good as his villain and after seeing Fröbe in a play, he suggested him for the role. He also also forever altered the Bond-Q dynamic when he told Llewelyn that Q should be the only person not in awe of 007 because Bond always returns the tech damaged. Moreover, Hamilton has a better visual style than Young. The slow zoom out as Bond takes the elevator into the belly of Fort Knox gives a wonderful sense of space and the action scenes are far easier to follow.

However, credit for how great the movie looks should really go to set designer Ken Adam. The film cost more than the previous two combined and it shows. While the interior Fort Knox set–with its unrealistically large piles of gold and sleek metal surfaces–is truly impressive, the exterior set is equally so. The closest the production came to filming at the real Fort Knox was flying over it in a plane. So, the splicing of footage with fainting soldiers (so much more visually interesting than the poisoned water plot from the book) only works as well as it does because of the detailed recreation Adam built at Pinewood Studios.

However, the rumpus room at Goldfinger’s stud farm is the showstopper. With its moving floors, screens and furniture, it has more gadgets than Bond’s Aston Martin. Watching the room transform throughout is one of the film’s greatest joys. The only device more impressive is the laser that nearly castrates Bond. The laser had only been invented in 1960, so as the first to ever appear onscreen, it introduced the technology to much of the audience. Coupled with the decision to use both it and a dirty bomb in the final plot, Goldfinger ushered in the franchise’s practice of being on the cutting edge of technology in a way the books never were. Fleming dies shortly on August 12, 1964 shortly before the film’s release and it seems oddly appropriate. With trading cards and Bond brand clothing, Goldfinger kicked off Bondmania turned the franchise into something he never could have imagined.