Goldfinger is widely regarded as the best James Bond film. It’s certainly the most iconic. From Shirley Bassey’s theme song to the Aston Martin DB5 to the climactic heist at Fort Knox, this film set the standard for the series to come. It’s supremely entertaining at every turn, from the opening scene where Bond blows up a drug laboratory after slipping out of his wet suit to reveal an immaculate cream tuxedo underneath, to the final moments where Bond and Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) parachute to safety. But there’s more to the film than its superficial pleasures. Goldfinger is lauded as the best of the Bond films because it introduced so much of what we expect from a Bond film: the extended, action-oriented pre-credits sequence, the opening title song, the gadgetry, the fine balance between campy humour and muscular action. However, the film also explores the dangers of personal vices. It’s not exactly high-minded, but it has plenty of interesting subtext to add to its first-rate entertainment.
Goldfinger follows James Bond (Sean Connery) as he works to take down Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), a gold magnate and criminal mastermind. He first meets Goldfinger while vacationing in Miami, causing the man to lose thousands of dollars when Bond discovers his method of cheating at gin rummy, and then meets him again on a golf course in England in an effort to bait Goldfinger into revealing his smuggling operations to MI6. Goldfinger eventually captures Bond in Switzerland and the rest of the film is devoted to Goldfinger’s elaborate heist of Fort Knox, with Bond as Goldfinger’s prisoner. Conceivably, this should have made the film a bore as Bond spends a significant amount of its runtime neutered of his powers. However, this is all very much on purpose, playing to the film’s thematic undercutting of Bond and the luxuries he represents. Goldfinger may have introduced much of what people love about the James Bond series, but it’s considerably more skeptical of Bond’s excesses than other films in the franchise.
Director Guy Hamilton, who had been approached to direct Dr. No but turned it down, thought that Bond was too much of a superhero in the first two films. For Goldfinger, he determined to bring Bond down to a human level. Much of this is accomplished through humour, as Goldfinger is noticeably less serious than Dr. No and From Russia with Love. While Dr. No and From Russia with Love are heightened genre exercises, they are still attempting to be serious spy films. Goldfinger doesn’t even try to match that genre’s seriousness. It carves out its own genre, becoming a Bond film, and Bond films revel in double-entendres alongside hyperbolic action. Connery is constantly jesting throughout the film, from the hilarious brutality of “Shocking…. Positively shocking” when he electrocutes a man in a bathtub to his stodgy quip about “listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!” to his final word on Goldfinger “playing his golden harp” after he’s sucked out of the airplane window.
The entire character of Pussy Galore, from her name to her masculinity (more apparent as lesbianism in the novel), exists in this light tone as well. Certainly such a character wouldn’t exist in the Red versus West dynamics of From Russia with Love. As well, the film has more focus on gags. Bond’s seagull hat disguise in the opening shot would only take a few tweaks to belong in a Peter Sellers film. Q Department’s retinue of gadget tests mirrors the SPECTRE Island bit in From Russia with Love, but it amplifies the absurdity of these tools as real spy equipment. Even Oddjob’s (Harold Sakata) metal-lined bowler hat is a humorous idea for a weapon.
And yet, its silliness doesn’t discount its deadliness. Oddjob’s hat may be a silly weapon, but it kills multiple people throughout Goldfinger’s running time. Oddjob’s hat is a good example of how Goldfinger neatly balances its humour next to its action. Neither aspect discounts the other. Goldfinger is often light-hearted, but it’s stakes are high and the pleasant tone never dispels the danger lurking around every corner. This makes it an altogether pleasurable experience, both light enough for children to enjoy, but with enough danger to appeal to adult thrillseekers.
The film’s danger is best exemplified by its villains. Auric Goldfinger is more formidable than any villain in the Connery Bond films and Hamilton takes every opportunity for Goldfinger and his henchman Oddjob to belittle Bond. Halfway through the film, Bond is already Goldfinger’s prisoner, ready to be cut apart by a high-powered laser. The scene is iconic for its gadgetry and Goldfinger’s retort, “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!” but it’s also key that Bond has lost to these villains so easily. Goldfinger outsmarts Bond and there is nothing Bond can physically do to save himself once he is caught. He only survives by lying through his teeth and playing to Goldfinger’s rationalism. Goldfinger doesn’t even believe Bond’s threats, but he cannot take the chance that Bond is telling the truth, so he let’s him live.
Where Goldfinger outsmarts Bond, Oddjob out fights him. Bond is never a physical match for Oddjob throughout the film’s running time. He only defeats him because he’s smarter than Oddjob, and the henchman, divorced from his mastermind boss, isn’t clever enough to win. This final fight between Bond and Oddjob in the vault of Fort Knox is one of the series’ physical highpoints. It never matches the all-or-nothing physicality of the fight between Bond and Red Grant (Robert Shaw) aboard the Orient Express in From Russia With Love. But while Bond barely has what it takes to beat Grant, he never has a chance at physically beating Oddjob. During their early encounters in the film, Oddjob needs only to land a judo chop to easily dispatch Bond. It’s only because Bond resembles Oddjob’s boss, Goldfinger, possessing a similar intelligence, that he defeats Oddjob in their final fight and survives.
This personality mirroring between Bond and Goldfinger is very deliberate. Both are intelligent British men (although Gert Fröbe’s Teutonic visage and dubber Michael Collins’ ambiguous accent make this fact hard to remember) with a taste for the best things in life. They look very different from each other, but Goldfinger resembles Bond if he were to let his excesses soften his body. Both are subject to multiple vices, of which Goldfinger’s greed trumps all. It’s important to remember that Goldfinger is the only Connery Bond film where SPECTRE isn’t the antagonist. Although Goldfinger would have certainly made a trusty member of SPECTRE, his real master is his greed—his vices. Goldfinger’s lust for gold supplies his power and his undoing. Bond’s own vices are likewise his strength and his shortcoming.
First of all, Hamilton loves to undercut Bond’s ultra-refined tastes. The early scene between M (Bernard Lee), Colonel Smithers (Richard Vernon) from the Bank of England, and Bond centres around Bond’s detailed takedown of the subpar brandy the colonel offers. M can only sniff the brandy and shake his head in bewilderment at Bond’s snobbery. Even Bond’s boss thinks his tastes extravagant. The film also demonstrates how Bond’s indulgences get him in trouble and hurt other people. His early dalliance with Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) ends up with her as a gold-encrusted corpse. It’s this tryst that causes Goldfinger to target him with such vehemence. Bond’s actions also pull Jill’s sister, Tilly (Tania Mallet), into the fray, indirectly causing her death at Oddjob’s hands. At every turn in Goldfinger, when Bond indulges himself, he is punished.
In a sense, Bond sleeps his way into a mess in Goldfinger and must sleep his way out of it. It’s only his seduction of Pussy Galore that saves him and thwarts the Fort Knox heist, as she is essential to Goldfinger’s plans. Bond’s only saving grace is that when he’s left no other recourse, he uses his practiced skills of seduction in service for Queen and country. Bond may be a cad, but he has a system of values that puts England first and foremost. Goldfinger, as Bond’s foil, is beholden to no higher call. His vices exist for their own sake and are never satisfied.
While Bond wants women and booze and to feel the thrill of adventure, Goldfinger wants gold and the power it entails. Bond’s indulgences get him in trouble, but his refinement and sense of duty and class ultimately keep him in check. Goldfinger has no sense of duty, and he’s destroyed by it, morally and physically. Goldfinger implies that Bond could easily become a Goldfinger if he didn’t serve his country. The line between him and his nemesis is that thin, and his sole sense of morality saves him. This duality makes Goldfinger both a celebration of Bond’s talents and the excesses his films delight in, and a criticism of what that sort of excess can achieve when unchecked by any sort of moral boundaries or system of values.
All of this is to say that Goldfinger holds thematic weight in addition to its generic pleasures. Its filmmaking is impeccable, although distinct from the equally distinguished first two films. Unlike Terence Young, Guy Hamilton favours medium shots to carry his coverage. There are no beaches or exotic locales (unless you count Miami exotic) to sensually photograph like in Dr. No or From Russia with Love, and even the clothing (including Bond’s famous three-piece suit) garner less visual attention. It’s also important to note that Goldfinger was the first Bond film to achieve blockbuster status in the United States, making its predominantly American setting appear more deliberate. To make up for its less glamorous visual scheme, Hamilton relies on clever, invisible editing to supply much of the film’s thrills.
Goldfinger has to be one of the best edited mainstream films of all time. Its pace is breathless. It doesn’t give Bond any time for plotless idylls, for even his trysts move the narrative forward. The constant match-cutting underscores the film’s many jokes and action sequences. For example, in the opening scene, just as Bond is about to light his cigarette, the shot cuts to the drug laboratories exploding, and then back to Bond with his cigarette lit, as if the fire from the previous shot supplied the spark to his smoke. There’s also the scene where Bond is returned to his prison cell in Goldfinger’s compound after he has escaped. The shot cuts to Bond sitting on his cot, alone in the room, but the camera slowly pans across the room, revealing four guards with guns trained on him, humourlessly ensuring that they don’t repeat their mistake. The conventional editing also allows us to comprehend the action scenes, while invisibly amplifying their rush. There are simple editing choices, such as during the laser scene where each shot moves closer to Goldfinger and Bond’s faces as it cuts back and forth between them, that do much to supply the film with its tension.
Goldfinger is impeccably crafted. It pulls off a delicate balance between self-deprecation and danger. Every Bond film since has attempted to recapture its perfect blend of humour and action. And yet very few Bond films—nay, very few films in general have achieved the perfect amount of thematic substance and overwhelming entertainment that Goldfinger achieves. No wonder it’s the gold standard for the franchise.
10 out of 10
Goldfinger (1964, UK)
Directed by Guy Hamilton; written by Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn, based on the novel by Ian Fleming; starring Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Fröbe, Shirley Eaton, Harold Sakata, Tania Mallet, Cec Linder, and Bernard Lee.