When film historians think of certain enormously important film years, a handful of years come to mind. 1962 is one of them. Not only did the year see an almost freakish wealth of English-language cinema but the French New Wave was reaching its zenith. A diverse panoply of international films were celebrated. And the longest-running film series of all time was born with the James Bond character catapulted into his first film adventure, Dr. No. It was with the third film in the series, however, Goldfinger, that Bond would reach immortal pop culture pervasiveness and resonance. Goldfinger marks the first Bond film directed by Guy Hamilton, who cut his teeth being an assistant director for Carol Reed on films such as The Fallen Idol (1948) and most auspiciously The Third Man (1949). Hamilton brought with him a sharp eye for compositions, and a workmanlike ability to reach the core of material with ease. Offering just enough flamboyance without it ever becoming distracting from the Bond series' greater “penumbra”—an integument that he, as the director of Goldfinger would become instrumental in helping to shape—which in itself was the production “formula” for Bond success.
Goldfinger contains what is probably the greatest of all pre-credits sequences in the Bond lineage. What may strike the more unacquainted Bond film viewer is the beautiful, nearly poetic simplicity of the sequence. The classic instrumental commences, the gun-barrel configuration swallows the screen but for the white dot in which the protagonist, Bond, James Bond, walks and discharges his weapon. A sheet of tinted crimson cascades downward against the figure of Sean Connery's 007, and the film properly begins. In one gorgeously lit nighttime shot, the camera is craned downward, giving the audience a view of enormous vats belonging to an oil refinery, while also introducing Bond, who surfaces out of the adjacent body of water in a black wet-suit. A moment later, Bond has scaled the wall protecting the refinery with a grappling gun, violently incapacitated a hapless guard with only two blows, slunk into a secret laboratory teeming with heroin and planted plastic explosives. Bond coolly sheds the wet-suit, revealing an immaculate white tuxedo, red flower lapel and all. He enters a nightclub and, just as he most urbanely lights his cigarette, the explosion nearby sends the entire bustling crowd bursting through the front door to see the sight. (Note, too, how the film never shows the explosion because it need not; the roaring boom and reactive commotion of the people surrounding Bond are entirely persuasive in convincing the viewer that Bond's mission is a success.) An unnamed contact sitting at the bar congratulates Bond: “Congratulations.” “Thank you,” Bond boastfully replies. The contact has advice for 007: “Don't go back to your hotel, signor, they'll be watching you. There's a plane headed for Miami in an hour.” “I'll be on it,” Bond assures, “but,” he says, eyeing the flamenco dancer of the club busily marching back to her quarters, “there's some business I have to attend to.” Hamilton, screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn and editor Peter Hunt take the viewer directly to Bond's interest, sitting in her bathtub. Bond walks towards her, she vacates the tub, liberally uncovered by a towel and Bond approaches her. She protests the presence of his sidearm, which she indicates startles and discomforts her. “Why do you always wear that thing?” Bond, tellingly, chalks it up to a “slight inferiority complex,” in one of the series' most intelligent and slightly self-conscious quips. He hangs it up next to the tub. Peering into her luminous brown eyes, he spots the reflection of an assailant stalking him from behind, preparing to level him. In a split-second decision, Bond pulls the woman into the attacker's way and it is she, not he, who is hit. Bond and his foe fight for only twenty-five seconds before Bond whips the man into the tub from across the room. Desperately reaching for Bond's gun, the man is electrocuted when Bond tosses an electric heater in with him. 007 rearms himself and reaches for his tux jacket. Surveying the destruction, including the woman groaning, holding her head, Bond coldly offers this obiter dictum: “Shocking. Positively shocking.” Connery's Bond walks out, closing the door to the room behind him with authority. Instantly, the film's legendary black-and-gold credits begin, given interlineate emphasis by Shirley Bassey's iconic “Goldfinger.”
When looked at through the viewfinder of Ian Fleming Bond purists, Connery as Bond is one of the great paradoxes of cinema. Considered to be a natural fit for the agent, Connery's Bond was simultaneously (and perhaps incongruously so) both more debonair and callous than author Ian Fleming's more wounded and empathetic invention. In the first Fleming Bond novel, Casino Royale, Bond's borderline self-loathing will almost surely take anyone immersed in cine-Bond, unfamiliar with litera-Bond, by surprise. Describing the hollowness at the center of his profession of killing, Bond is highly self-critical, telling another character how inhuman and unheroic it truly is. Finding nothing worth noting as engendering pride, Bond recalls the pathetic atmosphere in which he snuffed out the life of a Japanese man whose wrongdoing and wickedness were not detectable to the fledgling double-O. Fleming's Bond was less coarse and abrasive than Connery's, and the producers' interpretation, less astonishingly charismatic but more personable, as chilling and brutal in his own ways, perhaps, but fundamentally more vulnerable, more incarnate.
Connery's more vehement interpretation does not lack for interest. It makes his Bond, when placed within the prism of reality, nearly reprehensible. There's an important impulsiveness with which Connery plays Bond, and it's most crucial in Goldfinger. Bond gleefully watches from high above in another iconic scene, chatting up his newfound enemy's girlfriend, Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), while sabotaging that enemy's efforts to cheat at cards. That enemy is Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), who, claiming he suffers from agoraphobia, has himself seated so to have the man who plays cards with him sit so that Jill can spot his cards from afar on the hotel room balcony with binoculars. Bond decides to “have some fun” with Goldfinger, causing him to lose. Goldfinger, reacting poorly to Bond's machinations, snaps a pencil—and as Bond sees it he illogically hears it from what seems like at least a football field away in one of the film's more slyly amusing moments. Bond unthinkingly opts to become intimate with Goldfinger's girlfriend, which leads to him being knocked out unconscious and Jill being smothered in gold paint, resulting in her death.
The film revels in Bond's antipathy for Goldfinger. A seven-minute sequence detailing how Bond cheats the cheater that is Goldfinger at golf is the kind of leisurely, '60s Bond scene charged with heightening character development that would most likely have to be cosmetically enhanced to become more appealing. (Perhaps at a time of the producers' choosing, Bond would become poisoned and have to stumble to the parked automobile in the club's parking lot to find the gadget with which he could save himself.) Displeased and disgusted with Bond's shenanigans, Goldfinger allows his henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata), to allow Bond to witness what happens to people who do not cohere to the super villain's plans. Oddjob flings his metal-rimmed hat, which slices off the head of a marble statue. Bond's partly nonplussed, partly caustically comic reaction (reducing the display into a point about the club not reacting well to the statue's defacement) is met with stone-hearted but level-headed superiority by Goldfinger (he owns the club, he informs Bond) and smoldering rage by Oddjob (who crushes a golf ball in his hand almost like an egg).
Later, after being captured by Goldfinger's army of Asian henchmen, Bond is interrogated in another classic scene. Reportedly the first laser beam in a film by questionable Internet sources such as IMDB is used to drive the film's sexual-power issues home. Bond, that unconquerable conqueror of the feminine, perhaps especially those “belonging” to his enemies, finds himself squarely at the other end of a slowly oncoming laser beam, which, if allowed to continue, will render him useless to women. (Interestingly, Fleming's own dabbling in sexual-power motifs and sado-masochism strongly influenced the testicle-bashing torture scene of the 2006 Bond re-boot Casino Royale.) “Do you expect me to talk?” Bond asks, his voice finally cracking with an understandable desperation. “No, Mr. Bond! I expect you to die!” Goldfinger deliriously retorts.
Finally, Bond is given the arduous task of converting a lesbian associate of Goldfinger's into yet another ally and for Bond the greatest key to luring representatives of the opposite sex resides in a particular anatomical place, just as bluntly laid out by Goldfinger's laser beam. That associate is the hilariously named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), a pilot potentially instrumental in aiding her boss's efforts in rendering the gold supply of Fort Knox unusable with radiation. Bond's awakening—rude in all senses—aboard a plane after being shot with a tranquilizer gun demonstrably portrays the ludic relationship between Bond and Pussy Galore, as she menacingly aims a gun in his direction. Later, Bond and Galore will trade off wrestling moves, arm-dragging and hip-tossing each other into a mound of hay (one cannot help but figure that in a later Bond film a quip about “a roll in the hay” would be present, when it is entirely unnecessary).
Frobe is gigantic, in frame, in dimension and in personality as one of Bond's most colorful (indeed, golden) adversaries. Only recently did this blogger learn that he was dubbed—and this blogger has viewed Goldfinger many a time, and had never noticed any inconsistency or misalignment in Frobe's dialogue matching his lip movements. Frobe's Goldfinger is almost chortling in his egomania. Informing assorted mob bosses about his plans, for no reason especially, since he is preparing to exterminate them, he makes Goldfinger's actions semi-realistic, in the context of the Bond adventure, a testament to the actor's convincing embodiment of such a faintly eldritch figure. In this way, Frobe created what many may consider the first cinematic Bond super villain (Dr. No and Ernst Stavro Blofeld would probably have something to say about that), forever etching the formulaic framework for future villainous incarnations but maintaining a palpable grip on the diabolical milieu future Bond villains, too anemically rendered, would lack.
And that is not an especially problematic way to look at Goldfinger in many ways. The film has a number of flaws that make it less lively and breezy than its golden reputation (last golden pun there) would suggest. After Bond's capture by Goldfinger, and a few of the subsequent classic scenes, the film loses a good deal of its sense of pacing, crawling to the finish line. And unlike Dr. No and the best Bond film of them all, From Russia With Love, the film undeniably establishes the major tenets of the Bond formula. Beginning with Thunderball, the next Bond feature, those formulaic touchstones would only be enlarged, rarely ever adjusted or modified. Those who bemoan “the Bond formula” for its lack of ingenuity but cherish Goldfinger face a particularly troubling realization, that being the film's decisive and remarkably influential role in spawning the conventionality that would continually weigh the series down. That conventionality and recurring staleness would lead to several reinventions and re-boots, most recently culminating in the 2006 Casino Royale. But that is for another review. Looking at Goldfinger, the villainy of the titular character is especially entertaining today, in a way, as the fiend's agenda to poison America's largest supply of gold would today probably be thought up by some federally-funded academic to ward of hyper-inflation of the dollar from wanton money spending and printing. And how prescient to make Casino Royale's villain a crooked banker, forced to play high-stakes poker against James Bond; today, if he could claim American interests, could simply plead for a federal bailout. The Cold War may be over, but Bond may truly be just as needed today as he was forty-four years ago.