The year is 1964. President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated. Lyndon Johnson is dealing with events that will take us towards Vietnam while hate crimes break out across the United States in response to Johnson signing into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that abolishes racial segregation. Barry Goldwater announces he’ll run for president. Astronaut John Glenn resigns from NASA. Nelson Mandela makes his “I am prepared to die” speech. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley explodes. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., receives the Nobel Peace Prize. The New York World’s Fair opens. Britain votes to abolish the death penalty. The Who’s Pete Townsend destroys his first guitar in the name of auto-destructive art. The Beatles invade in full force.
And in the middle of all of this and so much more, James Bond returns to the big screen in the film that many consider to be the pinnacle of both Sean Connery’s early career and of the franchise as a whole. Even if you don’t agree with that, you can certainly agree that this one is among the most iconic movies of all time. Most people abuse that word, iconic. In this case, the word is not only applicable, it’s reinforced. From the full power of Shirley Bassey’s vocals to the introduction of the Aston Martin DB 5, from the beautiful Pussy Galore to the hat-flinging Oddjob, this movie had it all. Consider this one photo:
Anyone who’s ever seen this movie, even once, can already hear the dialogue for this.
“Do you expect me to talk?”
“No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!“
Simply put, this whole movie is made of awesome.
The film starts with a pre-titles “mini-adventure,” which sets the precedent for every Bond film from here on to do that. Once the story gets going, we see Bond in Miami, chatting up Jill Masterson and foiling Goldfinger’s cheating streak in a game of gin. Then in standard operating procedure, Bond and Masterson have some fun, then Bond gets knocked out cold while retrieving some champagne. When he awakes, Masterson is stripped naked and covered head to toe in gold paint, dead from asphyxiation.
Back in London, Bond is ordered to investigate Goldfinger. Specifically, he’s to learn Goldfinger’s methods for smuggling gold across international lines. To get in with him, Bond meets Goldfinger for a round of golf, convincing him to play for high stakes, backed by a gold bar recovered from the German Reich storehouses, which was provided to Bond by Colonel Smithers of the Bank of England. Goldfinger cheats, and Bond… counter-cheats? Is that even a word? Anyway, he switches out the balls, and Goldfinger can’t call him on it without exposing his own cheat. Here we get the iconic moments from Oddjob of using his hat to slice the head off a marble statue and of crushing the golf ball.
Bond installs a homing tracker on Goldfinger’s car and follows him to Switzerland. Here Bond meets Tilly Masterson, sister of the murdered Jill, who is trying to kill Goldfinger with a sniper’s rifle. Bond is then chased around Goldfinger’s factory in the DB 5 before being forced to wreck into a brick wall. Masterson tries to escape, and Oddjob kills her with his hat.
When Bond wakes, he finds himself strapped to the table with the laser. He talks his way out by pretending to know about “Project Grandslam,” which he overheard mentioned. He’s hit with a stun gun, then wakes aboard Goldfinger’s plane where Pussy Galore introduces herself. Bond activates the homing beacon in the heel of his shoe and learns that they’re flying to Goldfinger’s ranch in Kentucky. He learns of Goldfinger’s plans to attack Fort Knox and tries to warn the CIA with a note stuffed in a mobster’s pocket. The mobster is shot, and he and his car are crushed into a cube.
Though Pussy Galore is “immune” to Bond’s charms, he manages to convince her to switch out the canisters of nerve gas on the planes. She warns the army in advance, though none of this is known until after Goldfinger makes his attack. After a big shootout with the “revived” army and Goldfinger’s men, Goldfinger himself makes his escape by donning an army uniform and getting out in the confusion.
After escaping from being attached to a nuclear device, Bond and Oddjob fight it out while Bond tries to disarm the bomb. The match becomes brains over brawn as Bond is forced to beat Oddjob through electrocution. When Bond flies off to meet the president, it’s revealed that Goldfinger has hijacked the plane and is heading to Cuba. There is a struggle, and Goldfinger fires his gun, causing the plane to decompress. Goldfinger is forced through the window to his death. Bond and Pussy Galore escape via parachute.
I’m going to say something highly controversial now. As wonderful as this movie is, as exciting, as iconic… Bond is really ineffective in this movie, if you think about it. He’s constantly getting beaten over the head, knocked out cold. He loses not one, but two ladies. He wrecks his car. It’s Pussy Galore who ultimately foils Goldfinger’s plans, not Bond. Mostly Bond cheated at golf and stopped a nuke. Not bad, I grant you, but all things considered, his average is actually pretty low here when compared to other films.
And yet… how can you argue with awesome? You just can’t. Nor should you try.
Behind the scenes, all is less than ideal. Goldfinger was picked up for the third film because the case over Thunderball between Kevin McClory and Ian Fleming is being fought in the High Courts. Goldfinger was released in September. Fleming visited the set of Goldfinger in April, but two months before its release, Ian Fleming is dead, age 56, from heart attack. This was caused partly by his excessive lifestyle as Bond’s prototype with the lethal triple play of smoking, drinking, and over-indulging in everything else, exacerbated with the stress from the Thunderball lawsuit.
Chosen with American audiences in mind, Goldfinger boasted the large budget of $3 million, which is more than Dr. No and From Russia With Love combined. Terence Young, who had directed the previous two films, was denied a pay compensation that would have gained him a cut of the profits, so he walked. Guy Hamilton was chosen to replace him, and he would go on to direct a total of four installments of the series. Hamilton knew Fleming from his time in British Naval Intelligence, and he had originally turned down Dr. No because he felt Bond should be “less of a superman” by making the villains more powerful.
The Fort Knox sequence is as close to legitimate as it was possible to get. Cubby Broccoli got permission from a friend of his, Lt. Colonel Charles Russhon, to film in the area. To shoot Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus gassing the soldiers, the pilots were only allowed to fly above 3000 feet. Hamilton recalled this was “hopeless”, and they flew at about 500 feet, “and the military went absolutely ape.” For security reasons, filming inside was forbidden, but that didn’t stop any trouble. The interiors were designed by Ken Adam, returning after Dr. No. Harry Saltzman disliked the idea that it resembled a prison, but Hamilton liked it enough to have it built. The controller of Fort Knox later sent a letter to Adam and the production team, complimenting them on their imaginative depiction of the vault. United Artists even had irate letters from people wondering “how could a British film unit be allowed inside Fort Knox?” Adam recalled, “In the end I was pleased that I wasn’t allowed into Fort Knox, because it allowed me to do whatever I wanted.”
As for Connery, the Scotsman learned how to play golf for this film, which would become a lifetime pursuit from here on. It became so much a part of his life that when filming his final production, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he and the director engaged in a game wherein a dispute not unlike the one in Goldfinger took place over a question of who used what ball. By that point, Connery was using balls custom-monogrammed with the 007 logo. Touché, Mr. Bond.
Since the next one is Thunderball, I’ll discuss more on the lawsuit next time. After the success of Goldfinger, there would be no question that James Bond would return.