- Director: Guy Hamilton
- Writers: Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
- Starring: Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Frobe, Shirley Eaton, Harold Sakata, Cec Linder, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewellyn
- Accolades: 1 Oscar (Best Sound Effects Editing)
- Where to Watch: Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
The great Scottish actor Sean Connery passed away last week at the age of 90, but he lived a long, full life that included numerous memorable roles. He won an Oscar for playing a tough Irish cop in Chicago in The Untouchables, which gives him the line “[h]e sends one of yours to hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” He played Indiana Jones’ dad in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, an immortal Spanish swordsman in Highlander, and a Russian submarine captain in The Hunt for Red October, all of which he made somehow believable despite never making any major attempts to hide his distinctive Scottish accent. However, his most iconic role was as the first actor to play James Bond in the movies.
Goldfinger was the third James Bond film, after Dr. No and From Russia With Love, but it was the first to really establish the formula that would be followed for decades thereafter, without any real major deviations until the modern Daniel Craig era. It is the first movie in which Bond’s gadgets are really brought to the fore (and thus the first to include an extended sequence where Q (Desmond Llewellyn) demonstrates the various gadgets). It is the first time Bond requests a martini “shaken, not stirred” (which I feel compelled to point out is not how you make a martini), and the first Bond movie to start with an action sequence mostly unrelated to the actual plot, followed by a heavily-designed opening credits accompanied by a bombastic original song from a currently-popular recording artist (in this case, Shirley Bassey). It also was probably the first Bond “blockbuster,” given that its budget was more than that of the first two movies combined and it made that budget back in its first two weeks of release. Beyond all of this, there is a decent case to be made that it’s also the best of all of the Bond films (24 so far, with No Time to Die, the 25th, currently delayed due the pandemic).
Goldfinger pits Connery’s Bond against the titular villain, Auric Goldfinger, played by German actor Gert Frobe, who is plotting to irradiate the US gold supply at Fort Knox with a dirty bomb in order to cause the value of his own gold holdings to increase dramatically. That much of the plot of this movie is set in the US was no accident, as the British producers of the Bond movies were going for greater penetration of the American market. This Time It’s Personal because at the beginning of the movie Bond sleeps with the lady in a small bikini who is surreptitiously helping Goldfinger cheat at cards (Shirley Eaton). Then he gets smacked on the back of the head (while making a joke about the best way to listen to the Beatles is to wear earmuffs) and when he wakes up she’s dead, naked, and completely covered in gold paint on the bed. This is one of the most famous images of the James Bond series and maybe movies in general. Eaton even appeared on the cover of Life magazine covered in gold paint.
Anyway, to save the world, Bond must fight Goldfinger’s mute henchman Oddjob, with his extremely sharp bowler hat, and both fight and sleep with Goldfinger’s “personal pilot,” who is named Pussy Galore. The movie is very serious about this. Oddjob is played by Harold Sakata, a Japanese-American from Hawaii who had won a silver medal in weightlifting in the 1948 Olympics before starting his movie career. Pussy Galore is played by Honor Blackman, who was famous at the time as one of the stars of The Avengers. Not those Avengers.
If I can impart a couple of thoughts about this movie, one is that it’s actually good. By which I mean that even though it’s from 1964, you don’t have to make allowances. It moves, it has action, it has suspense. The stuff that’s supposed to be exciting is actually exciting. Another thought is that it is fun in a way that few movies, even Bond movies allow themselves to be anymore, moving into the camp. The closest thing I could come up with today is the Kingsmen movies, but they’re winking at the camera most of the time. Goldfinger is serious about this. It has several scenes that, over the years, have been parodied over and over. There’s the scene where Goldfinger decides to kill Bond and, instead of just shooting him, straps him to a gold table and has a giant laser gradually move upward toward Bond’s crotch, while Bond talks his way out of the situation (“Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”). There’s the scene where the villain explains his plan to a bunch of henchmen, using a pool room that has been rigged to have the entire floor pull back to reveal an enormous diorama of Fort Knox. Then, at the end of the presentation, he kills all the henchmen. So why did he bother to build an enormous diorama to explain the plan? But the thing to remember is, again, this isn’t a joke. The movie is serious about this. It thinks it’s so cool. And you know what, it pretty much is. We need more non-ironic giant lasers in movies.
But when I say that the movie holds up in terms of how effective it is, that doesn’t mean it isn’t dated. In the first ten minutes, Bond tells the bikini girl giving him a massage to leave because he needs to do “man talk” with CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Cec Linder), then slaps her on the ass when she still seems confused. In another early scene, he literally escapes from a bad guy sneaking up on him by turning the girl he’s kissing around so she gets conked on the head instead of him, with seemingly nary a second thought (she is wearing only a towel, of course). Goldfinger has a bunch of evil Asian henchmen all yelling at each other in Cantonese for reasons seemingly no more involved than “Asian people are shifty.” These are facts you need to deal with during these movies.
At the time, this did not prevent this movie from becoming a massive hit and launching “Bond-mania.” The producers convinced a reluctant Aston Martin to allow their car to appear in the movie, and the toy version ended up as the best-selling toy of 1964. Director Guy Hamilton made three more Bond movies after this one, two with Connery and one with Roger Moore. They were all hits, and based on this track record he would later be offered the director roles of both the Superman movie that would eventually be directed by Richard Donner and the Batman movie would eventually be directed by Tim Burton, but turned them both down. Most of his non-Bond movies were heist movies not particularly seen outside the UK.
Connery eventually starred in a total of seven Bond movie, and remained forever identified with the role. The story goes that one producer trying to cast the character in Dr. No showed his wife what she thought of him (after watching Darby O’Gill and the Little People, of all things), and knew he had his man after she responded that he “moved like a panther.” And he does, I think, and that’s what makes a lot of this work, like the opening scene where he snorkels up to a bad guy’s lair, then tears off his wetsuit to reveal a full tuxedo underneath. The saying went that all women wanted him and all men wanted to be him. I think Connery is probably the most effective of all the Bond actors at embodying all of that, the suave part and the threatening part. Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan are very suave, but the slightly animalistic bit is missing. I really enjoy Daniel Craig’s portrayal, but he is more brute force that occasionally cleans up pretty nice. Connery had it all.